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Moscot Family Orchard St

Yesterday, I opened an old sketchbook of mine, and there, done twenty-five years ago when I first saw the Lower East Side of New York, was my first drawing of Orchard Street.
There have been so many filled sketchbooks since then. So many sketches of people, of windows and doorways, and so many memories. And it took me twenty-five years to have the courage to sit at a street corner and to do a canvas of Orchard Street.
On Sundays the street is free of cars, barricades block off the entrances, and pedestrians own the area from morning to evening. This is a street of American history, a street where immigrants come to buy and to sell, where they assimilate into and shape the patterns of this country.

I began this painting on May 20, 1973. My plans were so simple: a sketch on canvas done on the street, and then home to do the rest. The street was crowded and I would never have the courage to sit there more than once. I put up my easel, my canvas, and took out my paints.The street throbbed with noise, with color, and with people. My original plans couldn’t possibly work. This painting had to be done on Orchard Street. Day after day I came back and soon time no longer mattered and the people around me entered into and shaped my work.“This street can be dangerous. Let me know if anyone bothers you. I’m Joel Moscot.” “Hey lady, wanna buy a genuine diamond?”“Carlos, look she’s painting you!”“Got a dime, lady?”“Let me tell you all about this building. Fifty years ago I lived on the third floor.”

My first painting created the second, the second created the third, and the series of New York streets had begun. Joel Moscot stands underneath the sign of the Moscot building. He is an art lover and has been a collector for many years. Joel is married to the former Theodora Rife, and they are the parents of three children.If not for Joel this painting- and perhaps this series- might never have been done. When I first sat down on this spot, I didn’t know that Orchard Street is a market where there are no holds barred, where the sidewalks are guarded by the store owners, and that the blocked off street has jealously guarded territorial rights. There are pretzel and chestnut carts, and ice cream and hotdog vendors. Most stores have outdoor tables of their own, and where I sat I took up valuable space. When I began to work I had no idea of this, and neither Joel nor his father mentioned it. Not realizing that I blocked off an important window, I sat down and began to paint. Next to Joel stands his father, Sol Moscot. When he was a child, Sol’s father had a pushcart with glasses, and Sol remembers standing on a box and grinding them. Now there is this landmark of a building which is not fully shown in this painting. It stretched out in back and above me and needed a canvas of its own. The exterior of the building is bright with show windows and designs. The interior could fit in on Madison Avenue. The paintings of this building became the 3rd and 17th canvases of this series. 

For eighteen years, Tony Silvia has been the handyman at the Moscot Building. He is also a reverend, and on Sundays he preaches in his Brooklyn church. He stands at the right of the painting holding his red bicycle.He brought me coffee and told me stories. He had a tape recorder and played it for me during his lunch hour, and he warned me when the street was not safe.The peace of Orchard Street is deceptive. Amidst the crowds of shoppers lurk the hold-up men, and gangs run and grab merchandise from the stands. Occasionally, there is a knifing, and the sound of running feet.But as N.Y.C. goes, Orchard Street is seldom dangerous. This is because of its large amount of policemen. Charles Metzler has been with the police force for 18 years, and 14 of those have been spent on Orchard Street. He walks up the sidewalk into the right hand part of the canvas. Born in New York City, he is stationed at the 7th precinct, is married and the father of five children, and is one of the best liked people on this street.Spanish is an important language here. Carlos Nieves stands on the right side of the painting, slightly above Joel Moscot. Carlos speaks English and Spanish, and can weave in and out of both languages within the space of a sentence. He is one of the salesmen in an outdoor stand of the Adler store. If Carlos needed ten languages on this street, he could probably master them as well. Born in Puerto Rico, and married to Elsie Nieves, he is the father of four children. Carlos arrived in America in 1958 and his children- like those of other waves of immigrants- will shape the future of this city.The newest sign of another wave of immigration is in the many South Koreans on the street. I never did get the man’s name who sells wigs across the street. He was replaced by another man after a few days, one who had just arrived from South Korea.“Until I get work in a hospital, I have to do this work. I need to do a lot of hours until I can get a job.”“What kind of job are you hoping to get?”“I am a pharmaceutical technician. First, I must learn more English. I speak a little but need more, and school costs too much...”

This is a city which never stands still. Neighborhoods change and children lose their roots and often their cultural identity. It can happen gradually. Somewhere across the world a people become uprooted, and slowly they filter into this city. It can happen quickly- suddenly a bulldozer rips down a tenement and the street becomes a home for the wealthy. Shifts can happen overnight and sometimes- if you are very lucky- you might be there to record them.It happened to me on Orchard Street.

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