So, when I head to Bushwick every day to teach high school English, I’m confident I’m one of the few folks in the entire zip code who knows or cares about what it means to be a member of the Hibernian tribe.
Little did I know that almost two decades before I descended upon Bushwick, a fellow member of the tribe had immersed herself into the lives of the locals.
Her name is Brenda Ann Kenneally. She quickly became known as “the white lady with the camera.”
For a brief time, the locals assumed she was a cop poorly concealing her surveillance detail. Soon enough, though, as improbable as it might seem, Brenda was just another colorful character on the block.
“It was the cheapest place I could find,” Brenda told me this week with a laugh, about why, after a tumultuous youth in Albany, she ended up living in Bushwick with her son in 1996.
Brenda immediately turned her attention to a nine year-old boy who seemed to personify the energy, swagger and – yes – the dangers of Bushwick.
His name was Andy Velazquez. As the years unfolded, Andy’s mother became addicted to drugs, Andy became a dealer, one of Andy’s brothers was murdered and Andy himself was shot.
All the while Brenda was there with her camera.
Not long ago, The New York Times published a series of Brenda’s photos. They depict Andy’s life in all of its reckless abandon.
There’s Andy in a hallway while his mother smokes crack. There’s Andy playing in an abandoned building. There’s Andy and his brother smoking weed.
These photos were harsh but also real. So real I knew they would strike a chord with my students who, unfortunately, are forced to confront some of these problems in their own lives.
While discussing Brenda’s photos of Andy and Bushwick, one of my students said, “I wish I could ask [Brenda] what she was thinking.”
“Maybe you can,” I responded.
I was fortunate enough to host Brenda and Andy last week. It was one of those days that reminds you why – sometimes – it’s great to be a teacher.
Andy’s cleaned his life up and is raising a daughter. The crutch he must lean on is a reminder of his violent past. Andy was able to convey to my students the consequences of bad choices, from the perspective of someone who really knows.
Brenda, meanwhile, was drawn to Andy at least in part because she herself had a difficult youth.
“My childhood in upstate New York was no more…rough and tumble than the other kids in our Irish Catholic neighborhood,” she has said. “But there seemed to be a veneer of denial about everything in my family, that made me want to drink vodka till I blacked out, let my record player shake the pictures down from mom's living room wall, and take my clothes off in public.”
She added: “My father was a tough teamster and had all the moral conflict that goes along with Catholicism. He loved the things of the flesh, yet his Catholic upbringing tugged at his heart and his conscience. I’m sure it’s the same for me … I call my self a recovering Catholic, though I think one never recovers.”
For many years, Andy was lost. Brenda helped him get his life back together.
“She’s my second mom,” Andy says.
Just as surely, Andy – and Bushwick – helped Brenda, who’s already published one book of photography ("Money Power Respect: Pictures of My Neighborhood") and is working on numerous other projects.
“I went to Ireland in 2011 and saw other folks really like me for the first time: talking non-stop…incredibly emotional,” Brenda said.
“The Irish I know are fierce and strong and they didn’t have the typical white European immigration experience. This has given us a natural awareness and empathy for struggle.”
Maybe Brenda and Andy’s story isn’t so unusual after all.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)