I met a man outside of a garden on a small street in Harlem yesterday. Let's call him "D". He bent down, pulled out a bag of cat food and made a careful spread on two paper plates, then slid them underneath the fence. He patiently waited as multiple cats appeared from the flowers, rocks, and all kinds of little nooks to attend the feast. Earlier, I noticed when he walk past me from where I was standing, but I was focused on the bee buzzing all over the sunflower I was trying to photograph.
Before I made it inside the garden, I glanced around in awe from outside of the locked gate. Within minutes, a man approached me with a welcoming smile and offered to let me in to fully explore it. Filled with delight, I told the man that I just purchased a bouquet of sunflowers for my office, and just an hour after that, I saw a photo of a friend in a field of sunflowers on Facebook and demanded to be taken there. I told him that sunflowers have taken over my whole afternoon, and I just couldn't believe it! Sharing my excitement, the man (let's call him A) and made our way to D's direction open the gate.
"So you're the one in charge of the feeding?" A asked with a giant smile. D immediately shot back in a sarcastic and dry tone, "Nooo. I'm not the one in charge of the feeding. Back off! You're scaring the cats, man! Back off!" Noticing the tension, I quickly said, "That's so nice of you to take care of the cats. How long have you been doing that for?" As if he was waiting for that question, he immediately answered, "Since May." I replied, "Whoa. That's a long time! How many of them are there?" D cooled down after all of my questions, then apologized to A because the thought we were just trying to scare the cats. He didn't realized A was one of the caretakers of the beautiful garden.
D told me it all started when one of the cats started following him in his wheelchair some time after midnight. He kept on moving, but every time he started rolling, the cat was there. Right behind him. So he decided to feed it Cheetos. After that night, he bought cat food and would meet the cat and his friends every night between midnight and two AM. One of the black cats' name is ISIS. It was originally Oryen, but D had to change the name when he realized the cat was a she.
D must have been in his mid-thirties and carried a short cane that was of no real use to him. Time has been rough on him. You could tell by his small frame, and his smile. D told me he has a lot of trouble with the law, and that he just can't get along with the mother of his child. At one point he said, "I'm not going to lie I used to sell drugs and do some pretty bad things." I asked him why he was so gentle with these cats. He told me he loved animals, and also when he was younger, his friends used to abuse them and he always knew that was wrong. When D was younger he had a tutor from Holland who left a pretty good influence on him. He used to teach him about nature and all of its goodness. D told me that the cats were not the only animal he fed. He also fed the birds.
I left the garden with four fresh tomatoes and one jalapeño. I held them proudly in my hands and stared at them all the way home with a smile. The tomatoes were beautiful, but my interactions with D and A really made an impact on me. We were completely different people from different upbringings. Sunflowers brought us together, and we shared an afternoon full of surprises and colorful stories. I love Harlem.