Thursday, January 20, 2011

Going Home Again With Steve Buscemi

Posting the photo of Steve Buscemi yesterday, I couldn't help but remember the remarkable morning Anthony LaSala and I spent with him when we were profiling him for our book, The Brooklynites.

It wasn't easy getting him, which made the circumstances of the actual session all the more special.

Buscemi was (and is) one of our favorite actors and someone I always wanted to photograph. We attempted to contact him through a variety of different ways, starting with contacting his publicist, who immediately informed us that Steve wouldn’t have time and couldn’t do it. We knew he was obviously very busy, but from everything we’d read about him we also strongly felt he would be into our project if he heard about it directly.

I had an idea. My then 15 year-old cousin went to camp with Steve’s son the year before, and they were still IM buddies. I called my little cousin and she got me Steve’s home address from her friend. Anthony and I debated back and fourth for a while as to whether contacting him this way would be appropriate, and finally I decided to take a shot. I figured, the worst-case scenario would be Steve Buscemi getting a restraining order against us. I wrote him a very polite note and included a bunch of the pictures, so he’d see what the project was all about. We waited, and waited, but we never heard back. It was disappointing, because we really wanted him.

We moved on, and months later, when we worked with Terence Winter, at the time producer on The Soprano’s, (and now creator of HBO's Boardwalk Empire) we asked him if he knew any other interesting Brooklynites to recommend to us. He said, “How about my friend Steve?” We knew immediately who he was referring to. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, obviously. He gave us Steve’s personal assistant’s number and within a few weeks we found ourselves in East New York with Mr. Pink himself. We always ask potential subjects to chose a location to be photographed that means something to them. Steve picked the neighborhood where he grew up. We loved that he thought about our request and picked a pertinent local and that he made the time to go out of his way to do this for us.

It was there, in East New York, where something special happened. Anthony wrote an essay about the experience for the book, which I'll run below, along with my photos.


Words by Anthony LaSala . Pictures by Seth Kushner

On the 3rd floor of 606 Liberty Avenue we have stepped through a wormhole. It is located in the middle of a small apartment sitting above a deli. Steve Buscemi is with us. It’s the morning of October 20th.

I’m not asleep.

A few minutes earlier Buscemi is standing on a street corner, in front of the home and school in which he spent the first eight years of his life. He’s traveled back to the middle of East New York to see us. We are conducting an interview and a photo shoot. It’s early. Sleep still drifts inside his body. But even through this 9AM haze, you can tell this spot is special to him. He’s looking at these corners and slabs of concrete like mislaid photographs found hidden in the pages of an old book.

And then Chance, a well-known personality on the streets of Brooklyn, leans its head out of a top-floor window.

From the apartment above us, the very apartment Buscemi grew up in, a man looks in on our actions.


“I’m Steve, I used to live here as a kid,” says the actor to the face staring down at us. “Do you mind if we come up?”

Soon after, I’m climbing a crooked white staircase dressed in slanted sunlight so dramatic it’s sucker-punching my early morning eyes, making them tear. As I push down on the backbones of the napping, cranky steps, they let out measured bellows. If I was dreaming, this might be my mind imagining some bizarre ascent into heaven side by side with Steve Buscemi.

But I’m not asleep.

I’m following a man named Michael Rosario as he leads us towards a four-room dwelling on top of a deli. He turns to Buscemi as we go up.

“This is strange. I was just watching one of your movies,” he says. “The one where you are flying.”
“I’m not sure which one that is,” says Buscemi.
“You know, the one with the plane,” says Rosario. “It was just on the T.V.”
“Con Air?” asks Buscemi as we near the top.
“Yeaaaah! Con Air! That was a great film!”

Rosario and his family now live in the residence. It’s a typical Brooklyn home, lived in and comfortable. Photographs on walls. Coffee tables and carpets. But as we stand inside the place, after a mere three minutes, we are undoubtedly in Buscemi’s old apartment. It’s the early 1960’s.

“It was actually in this kitchen where I first started performing,” he says. “This is where I got my start. I entertained my parents and my brothers and my relatives right in here.”

The eyes of Steve Buscemi are a gift. On enormous silver screens they are twin focal points - chameleon pools of anything, everything. Two coals stoking the souls of imaginary characters, giving them life, grit, compassion, reality. Today they are a million times more powerful. Today they are revealing genuine tales. Moments stored and stowed for years and clamoring into the air like heat rising through an old Brooklyn radiator.


He criss-crosses slowly through rooms and the stories continue as we followed him through doorways and decades.

The times his father climbed through the top of a hallway closet, below a skylight, to unlatch the front entrance when keys were forgotten.

The day his mother’s apron caught fire in the kitchen. “Mom, you’re on fire,” he calmly told her. Disaster was averted.

The time he was hit by a bus across the street from his home – his padded winter clothes saving him like modern armor. The city’s settlement money later providing him with a way to go to acting school.

How he slept in the same room as his brothers, the same house as his cousins. How his uncle had a chicken coop in the backyard. His family was all here - until they slipped off to other places.

“One by one they all moved to Long Island. We were the holdouts until we left. My grandmother actually lived here for a long time after we were gone. I used to visit her here.”

We were on our way down the crooked stairs soon after that. Back down the white passageway. Back into the streets of East New York and a 2005 morning. As we left Steve Buscemi on the corner of Liberty Avenue he lit up a cigarette. He was still looking up at the buildings above him, still casting those eyes – those compelling eyes – through the air like butterfly nets, searching for his cobwebbed, vanished memories. Smoke filling his lungs. The early 1960’s still drifting inside his body.



Anonymous said...

I lived in ENY/Cypress Hills during those same years...just a few blocks away.I didn't know Steve. We would have gone to different schools. St. Michaels was probably his Catholic church/school/ MIne was Blessed Sacrament. Even though we are all loon since removed from that neighborhood there's an incredible connection to ENY by all of us who lived there. I left NY in 1970 and have lived the largest part of my life away but I still proudly consider myself from Brooklyn. There's a site on Facebook about the neighborhood: CYPRESS HILLS, check it out. also there's MY EAST NEW YORK on the internet.

Anonymous said...

I loved this piece on Steve Buscemi! i too grew up in ENY and attended St.Michael's Grammar School. Class of 1970. I lived at 646 Liberty Ave. right next to LaMesta's Funeral Parlor. After spending 1 year in Maxwell HS we moved to the Rockaways. When I became an Assistant Principal in Belle Harbor our paths crossed again when I worked with one of Steve's relatives at the school. He too had become a Rockaway person.

Anonymous said...

I also grew up in ENY all thru the 60's and lived on Crystal Street by ENY Vocational High School....went to St Ritas (Class of 1970)...There was a girl in my class, Ninfa Buscemi and I wonder if they are related?Funny enough my family moved to Rosedale, Queens and my mom and I worked at Alexanders, just like Steve.