Midnight became my friend in the summer of 1984. Handsome, friendly, and fun to be with, Midnight invited me to an underground Lower East Side club where he was performing a dance to the beat of drums and the poetry of Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero. We went to places like Coney Island and the Staten Island Ferry; I took photographs, and he seemed very comfortable.
Midnight had so many colorful stories to tell for such a young person. Ismael, his real name, had only occasionally seen his father. He and his sister, Margie, were raised by a Black woman they called Mommie Margaret. He ran away from home at the age of thirteen. To survive on his own, he became involved in hustling on the streets. He worked at odd jobs and traveled (mostly by bus) to cities all across the United States. Ismael did time in prison and he may have even robbed a bank.
After we got to know each other better, Midnight became withdrawn. He was often so far away that he wouldn’t say a word for days. There is a photograph of him where he looks like Jesus, with very long hair and staring off into space. He was delusional at that time but I did not know it then. When he began telling me the story of the crucifixion and that “The Time Is Now!” I felt very nervous and frightened. He wasn’t making any sense. The next morning, there was a knock at the door – there stood Midnight, dressed in an outrageous outfit made up of scarves and other colorful bits of clothing. Holding up a wooden Japanese sword, Midnight said he was going to walk to Canada. This episode led up to the time he was standing on top of the Williamsburg Bridge, ready to jump into the East River, but the police got him down and brought him to Bellevue Hospital. Midnight called me from inside Bellevue’s emergency room, where he was hospitalized for several months until he was stabilized and released into his own care.
Midnight’s cycle was to become ill, get hospitalized or imprisoned, take medication and see counselors, and then become a member of a program with therapy. Getting this kind of help seemed to work for a while; then something would go wrong and the voices would start telling him to jump on a bus to California, the Midwest, or anywhere and everywhere a bus could take him. Then, when he reached a destination, depending on his condition, he would do something drastic, like the time he set his hand on fire and wandered for miles without food or shelter until someone finally called the police and he was taken away in an ambulance. Then it would start all over again.
I found out later that this very gentle, sensitive soul suffers from schizophrenia. As a friend I tried to help him when he would escape from the hospital – I always
took him back. I went with him to the Social Security office and to apply for welfare. It could take a whole day just to be seen by someone. Helping Midnight was an exhausting commitment. At times he was doing very well and could hold down a job, but eventually his illness would kick in and he’d be off and running.
There were times when his sense of humor was shining through – his playfulness and enjoyment of films, art, music, dancing and singing was absolutely contagious. He even wrote some country-sounding songs that he sang to me. From some place in his silence and observation, he possessed an acute intuition and sensitivity to life.
In 1987, Margie died of AIDS, leaving five children. They were Midnight’s only family and he had not seen any of them since the funeral. One day, I came across their phone numbers and gave them to Midnight. He called and found out that some of them had gotten in trouble with the law. He sounded very sad about this as he told the story to me over the telephone.
There were times when he disappeared for months. Some days when I came home I found that he had called and left a message on my answering machine. He could be calling from downstairs in the lobby or from anywhere in the USA – once he called me from Puerto Rico. Last winter, after a long silence, he showed up after months of being homeless. He looked so worn down; I didn’t know if he’d make it. I gave him something to eat. Later, I was riding the crosstown bus on 14th Street and saw him out the window. I jumped off to talk to him. He was looking so much better; he had gotten himself into a men’s shelter where he had cleaned up, changed clothes, and shaved off his long hair.
For a while he had been living in a supervised residence where he felt at home. On occasion, he would still travel – sometimes weekend trips to Washington D.C. and Atlantic City, or longer journeys to San Francisco and New Orleans. But, Midnight has now been gone for almost a year. He called a few months ago to ask for food and money to get back to New York. His residence sent him a bus ticket, but when the bus arrived at Port Authority, he was not on it.
The photographs of Midnight date from 1984 to 2002 and are arranged in chronological order.
Statement by Arlene Gottfried (1950 – 2017)
This is the gallery’s fifth exhibition of Arlene Gottfried’s photographs. Midnight consists of 22 color prints and 10 black and white prints.
Gottfried is also currently featured in the exhibition “Clandestine” at the Cobra Museum of Art in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Her work has been published in five monographs, “The Eternal Light”, “Midnight”, “Sometimes Overwhelming”, “Bacalaitos & Fireworks” and “Mommie”. Her photographs have been featured in The New York Times, TIME, LIFE, The Guardian, CBS News and elsewhere. Her work is held in the collections of The Brooklyn Museum, The Jewish Museum, The Tang Teaching Museum, The North Carolina Museum of Art and the New York Public Library. She is prominently featured in the film “Gilbert” a documentary on her brother, the comedian Gilbert Gottfried.