OG Told Me.
When I asked Kenny “Famous Wayne” Bowens if I could take a picture of him, he said, “Sure! Everyone else is doing it.”
Bowens’ street-side shoeshine business is located just outside of the Embarcadero Bart exit, at the foot of San Francisco’s ever-busy downtown.
As I snapped flicks, he didn’t stop shining kicks.
The first question I asked him was about how long he had been a shoeshine guy in San Francisco. Bowens, a native of Oakland, said he’s been out there for thirty years. I followed that up by saying, “I know you’ve seen some things!”
I just didn’t know how much.
I later found out that he had been cited by local news organizations for his perspective on San Francisco happenings—like the Occupy camp. And he’s been profiled as well—like this write-up on the shoeshine game.
I learned all of that after a quick Google search on the name of his company, Famous Wayne’s. I wanted to know just how famous he is.
I found out two important things:
1. His sign about being world famous wasn’t a lie. (Well, at least he’s World Wide Web famous.)
2. Taking photos of shoeshine guys dates back to the first photo of a human—ever!
It’s reported that in 1839, Louis Daguerre (inventor of the Daguerreotype), took the first known photo of a human being. In Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple there is clearly an image of a human on a corner; that human was a shoeshine man. The only reason it’s visible is because the shoeshiner was still long enough for the image to fully develop. (Back then the shutter would remain open for an extended period in attempts to register the image.)
One blog, likened a photo of Bowens to the first photo ever taken.
Mr. Bowens is a modern day version of that photo from France; standing still long enough for passerby’s to get a shot of him.
After capturing a couple of photos, I asked him some questions. As he answered, I turned my camera from photo to video; and then asked him the same question that same question I ask everyone for my OG Told Me project (if you had the ear of the youth, what guidance would you give them?). This is what OG Told Me:
“Man, young people don’t listen man. You’ve got to listen. You’ve got to listen before you try to be somebody. Come on! You know that bro-bro. I listened. You listened. That’s why we’re still here.”
In 1946, Jay Payton was crowned champion at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre. Payton, who was born in Asheville, NC to a mother who was a Minstrel Show dancer, graduated high school and then headed straight to New York. He struck gold on Broadway, and then proceeded to travel the world– tap dancing his way across the map. He said he’s been to England, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand. And now in his late 80’s, he lives just outside of Oakland, Ca.
When asked what his claim to fame is, he simply showed me a plaque, which highlighted many of career achievements. After I read the plaque, and acknowledged his achievements, he said that I could ask anyone in the room about who he is–and they’d all say the same thing.
When asked what wisdom he would tell young people, if given the opportunity, Mr. Payton said, “I’d tell them to ‘bonify’ their act. Get a strong act. And then you can go anywhere.”
“Put God first, and never give up during the darkest hour.”- Robert
“Get a job.”- Tracy
I hadn’t introduced myself, nor did I tell him my intentions of conducting an impromptu interview; all I did was compliment him on his hat.
After that, I asked him where he was from. He said,“Louisiana.” I said what part? He said, “Lake Charles, Louisiana. I came here to find my father.”
Tracy from Lake Charles is now a fixture in Oakland. I’ve seen him around on multiple occasions. On Friday November 7th, 2014 I finally talked to him.
As we conversed, Tracy made it a point to not only mention his conquest to meet his father, but that he has 9 children of his own– and they’ve all graduated from high school. He was proud of that.
The most important thing I took from my interaction with Tracy is what he said about his father, ”most kids think their parents have to find them.“ Tracy, who says he found his father, continued, “No, sometimes you have to go find your parents and show them you love them.”
When asked what wisdom he’d tell young people if he had the opportunity, he said, “get a job.” Tracy then continued, “get a job so you can get your own.”
Me: Can I take your picture?
Mr. Walter: Man, they’ve been asking me that all my life. I’m used to it!
“You can start as fast as you want to, but if you don’t finish, you haven’t done a thing.”- Oscar Wright
In front of rooms of people, be it at a large school board meeting in downtown or at a small continuation school in East Oakland, I’ve witnessed him introduce himself before—and always does it the same way: by stating his name, his age and the fact that he is a “proud African American man”.
He has always introduced himself in that manner—the only thing that has changed is his age.
A couple of weeks ago, I caught up to the 91 year-old Oscar Wright, and had a one-on-one conversation about some of the things he has experienced in his lifetime.
We sat inside his living room. A living room where the walls are covered in plaques, framed notes signifying accomplishments and photos of Wright posing with politicians, educators and family members.
We talked for an hour. And in that brief time, he told me about his role in getting Emeryville to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Holiday in 1986. He showed me the speech he delivered at a conference on the Philadelphia Plan in 1970; and how that was the catalyst to Affirmative Action. He briefly mentioned how he and Medgar Evers were not only on the same college football team, they were roommates freshman year, as well.
On top of everything, he gave me insight as to how his childhood lessons around sharecropping and doing construction in Mississippi lead to him becoming an advocate for the educational rights of African American children. And to this day, he’s an education advocate; not just at the local school board meeting, but to the President of The United States of America. And when Mr. Wright writes, the President writes back.
“You put the big foundation down, you can go up a lot of stories,” Mr. Wright did a hand gesture as best he could with his elderly shaky palms. He continued, “you put a shabby foundation down, and there’s a limit, you’ve got a limit as to where you can go from there.”
He spent his childhood working in Mississippi for white man who owned a dairy farm. One conflict between his boss’ son and Mr. Wright, lead to Mr. Wright’s enrollment in the Army. He says it was then that he grew to know who “Uncle Sam” really was. While serving time in the armed forces, Mr. Wright was stationed in Burma. It was there he made a friend who encouraged him to attend college once he was done with the army.
“And when I got a discharged from service, on November 23 rd of ’46,” Mr. Wright recalled the date without missing a beat, “I went home, and fortunate for me, my father, he had gone from a sharecropper to non-contract work. And he got a lot of work!”
Mr. Wright used this introduction to the world of carpentry, and built on it. After assisting in his father’s dreams of getting the construction business rolling, Mr. Wright left for college. He got accepted to Alcorn State, an all African American school that specialized in agriculture and mechanics in Mississippi.
“We learned a lot of farming, how to do agriculture, blacksmithing, brick masonry, carpentry, sheet metal, electricity,” said Mr. Wright, who admitted that he wasn’t the best student, only earning one A his entire college career. He continued, “In other words: they trained us to do what they wanted us to do.”
Mr. Wright was mad that he was underprepared due to his lack of educational opportunities as a juvenile, and more upset that his college curriculum was created by the white power holders.
He said it was that experience that lead him to look at curriculum and the way young people are taught, and raise questions.
As he went through life, he married twice and had six kids, two of whom have passed. Mr. Wright moved from Mississippi to San Francisco for job opportunities, but he never stopped building on the concept that bothered him in college: the malignant construction of the education system.
To this day, Mr. Wright can sit on his couch and point around his house at things he has constructed, including a large portion of his actual house. In that same living room where Mr. Wright often sits, where all of the historical pictures hang on the walls, there is a table. And on that table there is a handbook. Inside of that handbook is the outline for the State of California’s Public Education Curriculum, the most recent edition.
After talking and walking through Mr. Wright’s personal museum, I asked him a couple of questions… the first: What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
Mr. Wright responded, “Oh, I had a good family and I made a way for my wife. And you know? God has been good to me. I made a good living for myself, my family, and helped other people out.”
I followed by asking him the same question I ask every elder gentleman I interview: If you had the chance to talk to young people, and give them some wisdom, based on your life experiences, what would you tell them?
“I’d say love yourself. And respect yourself. And have confidence in yourself. And never forget the roots from which you came; that you can do anything. God gave you the ability to think and reason, and put you beyond any other creature on earth. God gave man the ability to think and reason, and the right to choose. I’d tell those youngsters, ya know, for every choice there is a consequence. And in order to be in successful in anything in life, it requires hard work, discipline and perseverance. You can start as fast as you want to, but if you don’t finish, you haven’t done a thing. So, stay the course. And there is nothing that you can’t do– with God being put first, you can do anything.”- Oscar Wright.
“I’d tell em to go back to school.”- James Moore
I stopped for tacos. Ended up getting clean windows… and some wisdom.
As the sun set in East Oakland on a Saturday evening, I met James Moore, a neighborhood native who traveled the world; a serviceman who fought in the Korean War.
He was washing windows in front of the well-known Sinaloa Taco Truck on 22nd Ave. and International Blvd.
As he sprayed and wiped the front window of my car, I asked Mr. Moore the question I ask all elders I encounter: if you had the chance to tell young people any words of advice what would you tell them, Mr. Moore instantly replied: “I’d tell ‘em to go back to school”.
We continued to discuss the concept of work ethic, be it that of a window washer or that of a journalist; and how your work might help other people.
He ended with saying, “it might not seem like much, but the more I do it, the better I get.”
After I cut off the camera, I asked Mr. Moore about the work ethic of the women on International Blvd, a well-known hub for prostitution. “That profession is older than Christ,” Mr. Moore said as a young lady in short shorts walked through the intersection about 50 yards away from us. “It’s ok, if they’re are doing it for the right reason,” said Mr. Moore. He followed up with saying, “if she has a family and this is the only way they can eat, then it’s ok.”
As the school-age girl walked out of my peripheral, Mr. Moore finished wiping my passenger window. I got my order of three tacos and one large Orchata from the taco truck, and then shook Mr. Moore’s hand–giving him what spare change I had in my pocket.
“Have a blessed day,” Mr. Moore said, before I drove away.
“Alcohol is almost as bad as heroin…”- Gerald “Tin Man” Green
Mr. Green and I stood outside of Oakland’s Laney College Forum on a Saturday morning, as we discussed his upbringing, his career as an engineer and his history here in Oakland.
What impressed me the most was the portion of the conversation where Mr. Green, I mean Tin Man, talked about his knucklehead days.
“You know that corner store over there on 59th and San Pablo?” Tin Man said as he pointed in the general vicinity.
“I used to hangout in front of that liquor store!”
He and his crew were regulars on that corner. And after having a couple of drinks and/or smoking with the gang, he’d head home and do his homework.
He said it’s all about self-control.
I asked him if it was like being a kid, and knowing how to stop yourself from grabbing another cookie out of the jar. He said, yeah!
I didn’t get a chance to ask him the question (If you had a chance to give young people a piece of wisdom, based on your experience, what would you tell them?).
Instead, our conversation about drug consumption ended abruptly, as I was asked to return to my job as a photographer for an event.
But, before I left, Tin Man made sure to tell me to be mindful of my alcohol consumption.
“Alcohol is almost as bad as heroin; it’s one of the hardest habits to break.”
“When (Billy Dee) smiled at Diana Ross… I said, man, that nigga got a pretty smile.”– Diamond Jim
I saw his car earlier this year, and I instantly took a photo.
The caption of the photo read: “(Whose) granddaddy/ uncle/ baby’s daddy is this? I gotta holla at OG. #OGToldMe. #Oakland. #Cadillac.”
Well, on June 12th 2014, I saw the car again. It was in the Church’s Chicken parking lot in North Oakland. As the driver stepped out of his brown Cadillac Fleetwood, I approached him, introduced myself and complimented him on his license plates.
We began to talk: about his birth down in Louisiana, his upbringing in Chicago and the ups and downs of selling drugs in Oakland.
Diamond Jim’s lifestyle was flashy: he gave cars to family members and invested in jewelry.
“I had 2 whole karats, not no half karats, 2 whole karats,” Diamond Jim said as he pointed to his teeth.
He told me that back in the day he had gold teeth with diamonds in them, but he had recently “gotten past that”.
“In 2010 I had ‘em taken out,” said Diamond, as he hit his hand with his fist. “I’m 74 years old now!”
He continued, “I liked it when I saw Billy Dee with it. You know, Billy Dee in lady Sings the Blues,” Diamond smiled.
“When (Billy Dee) smiled at Diana Ross… I said, man, that nigga got a pretty smile.”
I laughed, and then I went to ask him the magical question– but he didn’t answer.
“If you had the opportunity to give young people some advice based your life experience,” I said, “what would you tell them?”
OG told me, “look man, I got to go.” He gestured at the fast food joint behind us. He was en route to get something to eat, and I was holding him up in the parking lot.
He concluded with saying, “Do you know Gangsta Brown? He has my whole story…”
I found the OG in the brown Cadillac. Now I have to find Gangsta Brown...
“Pay close attention to anyone who looks like they have a level head.”- Randolph Cox
He was wearing a weathered leather jacket and holding a horn in his hand. He walked alongside his bike, marching down San Pablo Ave at high-noon on Wednesday June 11th.
I introduced myself to Randolph Cox, and without taking a breathe, I asked: why do you play the horn?
“There’s nothing new under the sun, so I play the same thing over and over; and it makes me feel good,” said Mr. Cox.
“How long have you been playing?” I asked.
Mr. Cox replied, “I picked this thing up about two weeks ago; got it from a shop around the corner…”
We proceeded to have a conversation about his middle school days in Berkeley, his time in Vietnam and how the media can be deceiving or informing– and that’s why it’s powerful.
His mention of media served as the perfect segue. I showed Mr. Cox a newspaper that I had just grabbed off the newsstand a couple blocks prior to encountering him. The East Bay Express had just published a well-written piece, highlighting my OG Told Me project. I was excited; in the middle of the street, tooting my own horn!
After showing him the periodical and explaining my project, I asked Mr. Cox thee question: If he had the opportunity to tell young people anything, based on his life experiences, what would he say? OG Told Me:
“The best training is to start early, maths and sciences and stuff like that,” Mr. Cox said as I filmed him talking. He said that if you can acquire one of these skills, “you’ll always have a place in society… ‘Cause ain’t nothing new under the sun.”
A photo essay. By Pendarvis Harshaw. @OGpenn
OG Told Me
OG Told Me: a Write-up in my old High School’s Magazine
Athenian, my old high school, published an article on me and my OG Told Me project!!
New Guard Meets Old Guard, Pendarvis Harshaw ’05
An elderly man leans on a rail at a track meet, left hand on his hip, gazing at the sky. His expression says he has experience and he knows what’s up. He is Tommie Smith who gave a black-leathered glove fisted salute from the winner’s circle at the 1968 Olympics. “If you keep living, you have to keep changing with times, ” he says.
Another Man, in graying dreadlocks, smiles as he looks down at a photograph from the 60s. He points to a young, lanky kid in the photo and says, that’s me.” He is Ronald Freeman and was once a member of the Black Panther Party. “Just look around,” he says. “Figure out how to impact the situation and make it better.”
Two men sit on a sidewalk and crack jokes over a game of chess. Their bare, muscled arms are poised over the game pieces as they concentrate on their next move. They are “David Ruffin” and “Philly Fred”, fixtures on the street in Washington, DC’s Uptown. David says, “Follow your heart. Stay close to your mother.”
all of these remarkable photos and words of wisdom are featured on a photo-journalistic website called OG Told Me ( ogtoldme.com ), created by Pendarvis Harshaw ’05. “It’s an ode to the elder men in the community who gave me tidbits of wisdom as I moved through society as a child,” he says. “They taught me what to do and what not to do. Sometimes It’d be a neighborhood big shot standing in front of his car. Sometimes it’d be a homeless person at a bus stop.”
The OG project is a replica of what Pendarvis did growing up, now told with a camera and a blog site instead of a pen and notebook. ( OG is a term for elders and means original gangster, but now has multiple meanings: old guy, old guard, original griot (storyteller). He travels around Oakland, asking elders the question: given your life experience, if you had the chance to talk to (young*) people, what would you say? “In a world where so many die young, you have to be doing something right in order to live that long,” he explains.
Pendarvis is currently a gradate student at UC Berkeley studying documentary filmmaking, and is also a free-lance journalist. “I’m drawn to journalism and the art of storytelling because poetry is the basis for all good writing,” he remarks. ” I
choose to focus on the overlap of education and violence/ justice because that’s where I think I can make an immediate impact.”
When asked what Athenian experience has influenced his life the most, he says,” Mannnnnn … that trip to Death Valley! I think about that so often! Greatest lesson ever learned has to be the lesson of the Hero’s Journey. Experience it through hiking across the hottest place in the Western Hemisphere, only to return home– a complete Hero’s journey.”
And his words of wisdom to others? “Pack light,” he says. “That’s all I tell myself.”
Living The Dream
He said his patnas called him “Pops” for short.
He got off the bus in North Oakland. At the drug store on 51 st and Telegraph. I was left to think back on the conversation we just had: the racial makeup of West Virginia, the land that the United States owns under the Pacific Ocean and how plastic Black and Mild cigar tips will leave you with foul smelling breath—wooden tips don’t do that shit.
He walked onto the bus in some busted brown boots. I was staring at the center plate that connects the two portions of AC Transit’s double busses. Hypnotized– the boots caught my eye as I stared at the ground like it was staring back at me. I broke from my thoughts of graduate school projects, thesis statements on OG’s, the fact that Peter Nicks had just told Spencer Whitney and myself, “HU – YOU KNOW”, plus the footage of Marlon Brando I had just seen… (“Meeting Marlon Brando” = Great film)
A poster I found a while ago at a cafe in Oakland on Telegraph Ave… A cafe conveniently named Telegraph. (I took a pic and digitally altered that shit.)
Mind blowing — this reoocuring dream just manifested, yet again. Another rendition of OG TOLD ME. An OG, just a shooting the breeze about how paying your tax dollars means that you should be able to go to the mountains to escape the madness of the city. While on the back of the bus.
He said he was going home to his lady, and that means he had a good day.
we laughed. I shook his hand. He told me his real name and his nickname.
I committed his nickname to memory… But that was it.
I didn’t take a photo. Didn’t take down a (real) name. Didn’t introduce myself as a journalist– just a young homie named “Pen”.
But I did take mental note…
… a 2nd Sneak Peak At This Book I’ve BEEN Writing …
OG Told Me: Essay About The Photo Essay.
One time, an OG Told Me: “We’re not getting older, we’re getting better.”
It made me think…
In life, there is beauty in growing old, why would I want to die young?
In America, why are we glorifying young death and degrading becoming an elder?
In Black America, If they don’t have fathers- where are they getting guidance about manhood from?
In manhood … WAIT … how did I get here?
At 24, I find myself in this strange world called, “manhood”, you might have heard of it… but … not all of my homies made it, some of them never even heard of it.
So, once again I ask: How did I make it to manhood?
As a young man growing up in Oakland, Ca … I followed the OG’s. Religiously.
Their way of talking, thinking, breathing, and blinking… I studied that. Vigorously.
As an 80’s baby, growing up in urban America, surprisingly enough: I wasn’t the only one without a father. Eight of my friends were fatherless too. In turn, we came together as a brotherhood; a fraternal support group. This is sometimes called a gang, a posse, or a clique… na, we were just boys becoming men.
We would pick-up small insight into manhood ( i.e. ideas on approaching women, how to make money double, or even something as essential as: how to fight); we would bring that back to the boys and share the newly acquired knowledge.
From this, I quilted together my concept of manhood.
Through this photo essay, I wanted to recreate that quilt; and show the world my version going from boyhood to manhood.
The project takes the phenomenon that I’ve encountered throughout the process of growing up, and documents it- so now babies of the millennium can find concepts about manhood where they hang out: the internet.
A basic photo essay: head shots of elder Black men, with the addition of clever-wisdom laced quotes. This photo essay is not just documenting elders, no-it’s bridging the gap between generations. It’s giving young men an idea of what they might look like at a later date, and it’s … giving me insight to the problems that plague the black community.
I found a number of the issues that plague Black men in society through my OG told Me project:
– Lack of accountability.
– Total disregard for another man’s dream…
– Lack of critical thinking.
Through this same project, I also found some of the blessings that are found in Black men in society…
– A way of life that is unobserved by others- yet seen everyday: the invisible man.
-The natural occurrence of a rights of passage in the Black community.
The biggest conundrum I found myself facing during this year-long project: Finding the purpose of life…
All around the world people are living for two things: to get older and to get smarter.
This is survival. Basic survival.
However, where I grew up, people are living for two things: to get money and … to get money.
In result, our illusionary pursuit of money results not in getting older and getting smarter- no, it results in us dying young and dumb.
This is not survival. This is basic.
The aging process should be appreciated. It’s the beauty of life.
I haven’t made it all the way-I’m still growing, learning, aging- or as the OG told me, “getting better.”
And I’m enjoying every step of the way.
… And that is why I created this photo essay.
Now the question remains:
what exactly were those lessons that I was taught as I was growing from a boy to a man?
How ingenious is that? this blog- is called “blog.” and not only that … but the first line of this blog- is about the title! go figure…
now that I’ve got that out of the way….
The motivation behind this train of thought: my new computer.
I’ve worked all Summer to get a machine that I could use to produce my blogs, my photos, my essays … photo-essays! my radio shows, my dreams, my videos, my movies, my cartoons, my tweets, my facebook statuses, did I mention my dreams?
And now I finally got it!
Well, it’s not exactly the computer of my dreams- but it gets the job done.
Here’s a picture!
Wait, no! wrong one!
( I’m still figuring this fan-dangled-thingy-McBobby out.)
Here is my computer
time to get active.
– More updated on “OG Told Me” ( photo essay) : http://ogtoldme.tumblr.com/
-More updates to “Penn’s Station podcast”: http://ogpenn.podomatic.com/
– Book coming early 2012.
and remember that Xanax is the coolest palindrome. ever.
Posts about OG Told Me written by Penn's Station