By Jon Berry
FOR TWO YEARS IN MY 20S, I WORKED AS A REPORTER FOR a small, weekly newspaper in northern California. Geographically, it was a modest enterprise, extending about 20 miles north-south, and from the coast to a few miles inland. But within it were the most fascinating people – hippies, ranchers, activists, artists, eccentrics, oyster farmers, rock stars, old Italian families.
Every week turned up amazing stories – from heated protests against offshore oil drilling to recipes for barbecuing oysters; from a local angle on the repressive Pol Pot regime in Cambodia to the wild politics of California pot growing; from new ideas for preserving farmland to a breakthrough first novel from a writer who has gone onto great fame.
Over the past few years, I’ve been experimenting in this space with creating a small-town newspaper approach to spirituality, both in the workplace and in my actual, physical community, through Q&A’s with people doing interesting, spiritual work, and personal essays on my travels through New York. At times it seems like a far-fetched venture – particularly when I glance over to the file cabinet drawer holding the bills coming due.
But a series of messages this week has made me wonder whether the question that’s been holding me back – how do you pay the mortgage? – frames it all wrong. Better, instead, to ask: What do you really need?
Bill Cunningham is one of the most important people in the world of fashion. And he’s done it, basically, with just three things: A camera, a bicycle, and an unwavering interest in fashion. For decades, Cunningham, now in his 80s, has been bicycling up and down Manhattan, photographing fashion in the street and among society’s elites for two weekly photo features for the Sunday New York Times (“On the Street” and “Evening Hours”).
He leads a monk’s life. For most of his career, he lived in a modest artist’s apartment above Carnegie Hall with no kitchen and a communal bathroom. His apartment mostly served as storage space and crash pad. File cabinets of photos and negatives dominated the space. He slept on a mattress stacked on storage crates.
Money? Not important. “Money’s the cheapest thing. Freedom is most important,” he cheerfully declares in Bill Cunningham New York, an absolutely revelatory new film on his life and work. Material comfort? “Who the hell wants a kitchen and bathroom?” He patches his discount-priced rain poncho with duct tape. He wears a sturdy, utilitarian, blue French street-sweeper’s jacket (bought on work trips to France). He goes for simple bikes (sometimes used) – a good thing, since, by his count, he’s had 29 bikes stolen over the years.
Cunningham goes to church. But his spirituality – what breathes life into him – is his work. He has passionate points of view. “The best fashion show is in the street. Always has been. Always will be.” And clear ideas about approach. “I let the street speak to me. There are no shortcuts…. It isn’t what I think, it’s what I see.” He has a philosophy. “It’s as true today as it ever was: He who seeks beauty will find it.” And a political perspective. He’s championed outsiders from ‘60s hippies to the gay pride parade to whatever is in the moment with youth.
While he’s witty in an old-Boston way (reflecting his family’s roots), and charming (confirmed by a neighbor of mine in her 60s who has worked with Cunningham, who says he always calls her “Child!”), Cunningham has a gimlet-eye realism. “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” He has a reputation for integrity. He once quit a magazine job after an editor changed the slant of a story to make fun of his everyday subjects (which mortified him). He refuses food, drink or any kind of favor on the job. But, he allows, “to be honest and straight in New York, that’s Don Quixote tilting at windmills.”
And he has fun. He’s been interested in fashion seemingly forever. He jokes at one point that he spent most of his time in church as a child “looking at women’s hats.” He made women’s hats for a while before going into journalism. “I don’t work,” he says. “I only know how to have fun every day.”
Charles Mingus, one of jazz’s legends – for, among other things, his temper (at the Village Vanguard jazz club, he once got so mad, he thrust his bass up in the air, smashing the light above him; the fixture ever after was known as “the Mingus light”) – added a coda in a film I saw a few nights later. “Play yourself,” he would tell his musicians. Don’t be someone else. “Be who you are.”
It’s altogether too easy to focus on obstacles instead of following the rules of Mingus (“play
yourself”) and Cunningham (“freedom is the most important thing”). For his book Callings, Gregg Levoy created a list of “strategies of non-compliance” with callings that I love (and regularly need to be reminded of). They range from “waiting for the Perfect Moment” (aka my good friend once the mortgage’s paid off…); to “hiding behind the tasks of discernment” (as in, just one more workshop…); “telling yourself lies” (I’m just not [fill in the blank] enough…); “distracting yourself with other activities” (hello, email…); “turning a call into a Big Project, intimidating yourself into paralysis”; “choosing a path parallel to the one you feel called to”; “self-sabotage”; “playing sour grapes”; and convincing yourself you’re “unworthy” of a project. For the most part, these are just stories we tell ourselves.
Sometimes, says Judith Pruess, in a Friends Journal article passed along to me recently, we delude ourselves into being “too practical.” We figure out lines of work we can enter “without too much trouble,” which pay the rent and hold “some” interest. We fall into the “trap of compromising ourselves for money” rather than focusing on the “single most important task in life” – what to do with our “one precious life.”
These are not new ideas. Pruess’ article was written in 1996, Levoy’s book in 1997. Digging around on the Internet, I found a 2002 first-person story by Bill Cunningham in The Times saying many of the same things he does in the new film. Levoy quotes the warning against self-deception by Simone Weil (1909-1943), “The danger is not that the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but that by a lie it should persuade itself it is not hungry.” Hundreds of years before Bill Cunningham, Shakespeare’s Hamlet proclaimed, “Oh, God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.” Samuel Johnson said, “Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.”
Last year, researching a paper for seminary, I came across a snippet of a quote from the journal of the 17th-century Quaker businessman. Having “got a little money” from his work, “a little being enough,” Thomas Chalkley writes that he’s decided to devote the next period of his life to spiritual work and service.
How much is “a little money”? What’s “enough”? The answers, it seems, lie less in what we have to pay than what we have to do.
For more on the film Bill Cunningham New York, including to view the trailer, click here. To see Cunningham’s recent work – including video clips combining his smart, and often beautifully captured photos, with his whimsical commentary – visit The New York Times resource on his work; click here. (The movie poster and photos of Bill Cunningham in this article are from the movie website; the "On the Street" logo is from The Times' website.) For a 2002 first-person article by Cunningham in The Times, "Bill on Bill," click here. Warning: some of The Times articles may not be available to non-subscribers.
For more on 1959: The Year that Changed Jazz, produced by the BBC, from which the Mingus quote was taken, click here. The film appears to be coming to the U.S. in limited distribution, and hopefully will be available in video soon. Covering four of the seminal albums of all-time – Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, Mingus’ Ah-Um, and Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come – it’s a good starting point for educating yourself on modern jazz.
For more on Gregg Levoy’s book Callings, or to buy a copy, click here.