We aren’t the only weirdos in our neighborhood who live abroad for part of the year. I present Gerard, who lives down the hill from The Spartan Woman’s and my Staten Island home. He’s a photographer who has a business making beautiful photographic prints. If you’ve been to any photo exhibit in the recent past, most likely you’ve seen his exhibition prints.
Gerard, a first generation American of Italian parents, also has a family home in the hills south of Rome and north of Naples. He and his father bought the house back; it had been out of the family for some time. So he and his wife and family spend some time there each year. It was fun a couple of years ago to see Gerard in Perugia. He and his wife Toni Ann were driving around Central Italy and for a few hours, Perugia had a contingent of Randall Manor residents wandering around—we’re good tour guides—and having a terrific lunch at Il Cantinone.
Last weekend, Gerard’s photos featured in an opening of an exhibit of local photographers. His photos depict the woods in our neighborhood. I’m still amazed after nearly 30 years of moving here that we have a forest in the middle of what is a fairly dense North Shore Staten Island neighborhood. For an hour or so, you can wander past a pond and into the forest, following trails that scale a couple of hills and wind up at another pond. You’d never know that you’re in New York City.
But back to the exhibit. It was held, appropriately enough, at the Alice Austen House. Now a museum, the gracious estate was once the home of one of Staten Island’s stars, the photographer Alice Austen. When she lived there, the place was called Clear Comfort, and it’s in a beautiful spot right at the edge of New York Harbor. From the rolling lawn that descends to the bay, you can see Brooklyn, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Manhattan, and New Jersey.
Austen, who died in 1952, was an intriguing character. A member of Staten Island’s upper class, she got a camera from her uncle and was immediately hooked. She photographed her friends and family playing tennis, mugging for her on the beach, and attending fashionable parties. She also ventured into Manhattan and photographed people on the streets, many of them poor immigrants scrambling to make a living. Try to imagine a young woman more than 100 years ago hauling cumbersome cameras around and the heavy glass plates that she used as film. (Remember film?)
She and her friends called their doings “the larky life.” And there was something else about Austen that until recently, the prissy Staten Island Advance (the only local daily in New York) never mentioned: Austen was gay. She had a long relationship with another woman and because of her social standing and personal wealth, she broke free of the constraints that women of her time had to live under.
I WAS THINKING OF Alice earlier this week when Staten Island’s St. Patrick’s Day parade took place. It’s earlier than the bigger city parade, presumably so underage alcohol abusers could have an extra day to get wasted. The parade is notorious for another reason: It’s the only St. Pat’s parade that every single damn year bars the local Pride Center and the police gay group from marching as groups. It’s straight out of the Taliban’s playbook. Every year our friend Carol Bullock, the genial and all-around cool head of the Pride Center applies to march in the parade. And every year, parade committee chief Larry Cummings turns her down.
Cummings hides behind what he maintains are Catholic teachings about homosexuality. Yet his boss in religious matters, Pope Francesco, in an interview in January with The Associate Press said: “Being homosexual isn’t a crime.” Noting that some prominent clergy back anti-gay laws, he added, “These bishops have to have a process of conversion,” and they should apply “tenderness, please, as God has for each one of us.”
The situation reached a head this year. When Carol tried to submit her application, there was a physical altercation at a church where Cummings was taking parade applications, with that brave man Cummings shoving a press photographer. The police had to be called to calm things down, and Cummings remained a bigoted little soul who kept those nasty LGBTQ people out of his ever-shrinking parade.
Because of his stance, the island’s public high school marching bands won’t participate, and their youthful exuberance made the parade fun to watch. It seems that most of this year’s participants were motorcycling groups and guys with old cars. We can’t forget three local Republican politicians, including the borough president Vito Fossella, who achieved notoriety when, as a U.S. congressman, he kept another family in the D.C. area and it emerged only when he was arrested for DWI. Cummings is in great company.
I’m sure Austen would have appreciated, if not actually relished, the irony of how she became, as a fairly open gay woman, a Staten Island icon as a few 21st century Staten Islanders tarnish the reputation of her beloved hometown.