Amid hippie waiters with dreadlocks, at a bar-cafe in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, as it rained heavily outside on the street, I sat at a corner table and quaffed cappuccino and whiskey and waited for the illustrious photog Matika Wilbur to boom in with an arsenal of equipment and hair like oil from the deluge erupting up & down the eastern seaboard. … Since hurricanes Irene and Sandy, New Yorkers have grown a serious hate for rain and thunderclouds. You can see the anger on the face of the Manhattanite as he hunkers down from his new enemy under a broken black umbrella. There was a time when New Yorkers loved the Hudson and East rivers. Now, I’ve never seen more people readily throw sacks of garbage and body bags into both. “You turned on us,” they say. “It is over between us. You flipped.”
The night prior, Madam Matika, the peripatetic talent, had given a TED Talk at Columbia University re: her craft and gig, Project 562, but I couldn’t attend. That night I’d been in the midst of a serious rat & roach problem at my Brooklyn apartment. I’d found the beasts earlier in the morning feasting on my bagels and reading my Maxim. And even as I stomped their skulls and cried out for “Raid! … We need more Raid here!” I knew it was I who was the invader, the encroacher, the newcomer. These were the real New Yorkers, and now they’re dead. I killed them all with chemicals and my boot heel. And then I began to wonder who was the real beast in that brutal, unforgiving scene in that, my ramshackle flat … It was me.
I’d first interviewed Matika in the fall of 2013 for NBC News. I remember ringing her hotel room in California from my desk in Midtown Manhattan. It was noon on the west coast, and she was barely waking up. She’d shot some photos the day before on a reservation off an old dirt road. In a groggy kind of voice, she proceeded to tell me that, one day, she decided to sell all of her useless shit and then zipped off in her car and immediately took on the life of an itinerant artist – one who’d capture the essence of 21st century Native America with a camera lens and a tape recorder.
NEW YORK, PRESENT DAY: Late. She’s late. Indians are always late, I thought. Good – because I’d be chapped-ass offended if she showed up on time, and then I’d strip her of her bona fides and bark, “How dare you arrive promptly! Go circle the block or something. Come back in 15 minutes – on Indian Time. You’re Native for God sakes! Jesus. … Oh well. I’ll forgive you, but only if you’ve brought the tobacco.”
Suddenly, as I sat there, whipped by blond dreadlocks and yuppie conversations about the cost of trips to Cancun, in sauntered Matika. She didn’t have either photo equipment or tobacco. She did, however, have a very sturdy vertebrae. I’d worried that her spine had turned to jelly from all those nights sleeping on a stranger’s couch, but she appeared to be OK. … for now.
I could hear the blows of whispers emit from every table as she furthered into the place. She came in with a smile from ear to ear, turquoise from head to toe and an energy that I assume Boulder, Colorado, hippies feel when in the presence of a Buddhist Monk. And it seems Lower Eastside brunch nuts could feel it, too. Everyone had their eyes on Madam Matika and ignored for a while their pancakes and mimosas and whiskeys and cheap conversations. I, on the other hand, ordered more. I was almost level, near the point of a balanced morning high. One more would do it. Yes. …
We sat and spoke of splendid things, of shitty things, of sexy things and dined like we would be dead in an hour. Suddenly, she asked, “So when do I get to interview you?”
“No! I do the interviewing here!” I blurted. Matika laughed heartily in my face and reassured me that resistance is futile. I will, soon, stand before her, and she will, in fact, photograph me, and I will by God recount a riveting story into her tape recorder, lest I rouse the full wrath of a photographer. I’m a professional journalist and failed musician, which has taught me two things: drummers invariably get the girl, and never piss off a photographer.
Thirty minutes into our meal I got a call from a Harvard University Native who said there was an Indian event – a “sit in” – going down at NYU, which was only blocks away. Matika immediately damned the fact that she didn’t have her camera with her, but we downed our meals and drinks (Matika imbibed only water) and we went anyway, and when we arrived we noticed it was not a political demonstration at all, but, instead, a teach-in, and that we were two hours late – the dark side of Indian Time.
We flapped our gums with a few local Native American heavies and then headed for Union Square. Earlier, as we searched for the building, Matika was numb to the bone. She’d brought an Arizona jacket to a New York City climate, and I offered her mine, but she politely declined, so we hopped in a cab and headed for the square. We arrived in 10 minutes and leapt out of the yellow bee and over puddles and yuppies and into the madness of Gotham. An hour later, Matika warm in her new coat, we found ourselves at a nearby wine bar. There, we discussed dating in Indian country, friends and fans and foes and the natural talent embedded in Native American blood, which is true. Native Americans are natural performers. Wild Bill Cody knew this, but he took it too far … into the deep, the dark … the depths of the twisted early American colonialist heart. And while there have been many men like him since the days when he paraded our elders around like dogs at a dog show, none have had that suave handlebar mustache or openly wore his black leather boots – the ones that stopped just shy of the bastard’s rotten crotch.
Matika is quite the celebrity these days, so it didn’t surprise me when more Native and non-Native admirers came blundering in to see her, which ended our intimate time together. So I sucked down my merlot, said my goodbyes to a few familiar faces, to new faces and, of course, Madam Matika, who was, by then, already wearing down from the day’s events.
“I’m off,” I said. “I have some sins to commit.” And then I left to buy more Raid and a pair of steel-toed boots.
Matika texted me later that night. She’d caught her second wind and was ready to go again, but I’d killed too many living things (none of them flies) to get up off the floor amid the remains of the day. I felt guilty. I was surrounded by corpses whose crime was only that they were in my space, in my way, though they’d been here long before me. You asshole, I thought. You could’ve just had them removed. …
Lying there, defeated, I let my mind wander, and I wanted to know what it would be like to live for a day in the eye of someone like Matika. … Photographers, like Native Americans, see things quite differently than everyone else. Photogs see lines where we just see curbs and corners – they see poetry where we see a naked man in Central Park eyeing blue jays. A goddamn zombie could claw jawless and bug-eyed out of the earth, and the photog would grab the camera, shoot the horrid scene and smile all the while the creature gnawed and sucked on his skull. Yes. They’re a committed group of mad hatters, to be sure – a weird & wild bunch, and Matika’s one of them.
So, Matika will come back to New York one day soon, to the city where she once lived, and I’ll crawl into her eye and watch the style and harmony that is her work, her talent – and, in a very real way, her service. Right. Cheers.