The man motioned me to come closer. “I also want to give you something,” he said, and handed me a beautiful crayon drawing on which he had been working. I was taken aback, since it was such a significant present in comparison with what I had given him.
During my, daily walk in my neighborhood in Soho, New York, I would often see this elderly Japanese man sitting on a bench, in a small playground near my house, working on his drawings, which he colored beautifully. Although many of his pictures were of cats, the one he gave me was of fruits and flowers in striking colors.
I often wondered about him. He appeared to be in his eighties; perhaps he was homeless, since he was at the playground at all hours. I had never seen him talking with anybody.
He wore a red beret and two heavy coats, which had seen better times. What caught my attention was how seriously he took his work, since he was totally concentrated on his drawings, which I could see on the marble table in front of his bench.
One day I had asked him if I could take his picture. He agreed, and I took several photographs of him while he was painting. When they were developed, I went back and gave him several prints. He seemed surprised by my gesture, and that is how he came to give me one of his drawings.
Shortly afterwards he stopped coming to the playground. I saw him a couple of times in the street, walking and talking with a young woman.
After that I never saw him again, and I sometimes wondered what had happened to him.
I might have forgotten him if not for the beautiful drawing he gave me, which I hung in my studio and showed proudly to friends. The artist, I concluded, was another of the many transient people in this modern Babylon.
A couple of weeks later my wife and I were visiting a couple of friends in Woodstock, the artists’ colony in upstate New York. Since our friends are both avid movie and theatergoers, I asked if they had seen any movies or plays that they would recommend.
“Yes,” said she, we saw “A movie called `The Cats of Mirikitani.’ It’s about a Japanese painter who used to live on the streets until a film director, Linda Hattendorf, saw him, was impressed by his work and by his history, and wanted to help him have a more comfortable and protected life.”
Moved by the painter’s situation – particularly after 9/11, when she saw him coughing the dusty air blowing from Ground Zero – Hattendorf invited him to live with her.
Eventually she was able to obtain for him a regular Social Security check to which he was entitled as an American citizen and, most importantly, an apartment provided by the City of New York.
I learned that the painter’s name was Tsutomu “Jimmy” Mirikitani, and that he was born in Sacramento. When he was three years old, he returned with his family to Japan and was raised in Hiroshima, where, many of his relatives would perish. He returned to the United States as a young man because he wanted to become an artist.
During World War II, he was interned at the Tule Lake camp, the largest of the camps set up for people of Japanese descent in California. He was there for three and a half years.
These experiences obviously had a negative impact on his life. He became an angry and solitary man, ranting against the government which had unjustly imprisoned him.
After he was released from the camp he worked in several trades – at one point he was a cook in a restaurant in East Hampton, long Island, which used to be frequented by Jackson Pollock. He came to New York in 1952 and finally ended up living as a homeless artist.
He continues to paint now and, on occasions, he, gives lessons. He has met with long-lost relatives living on the West Coast – one of them a sister from whom he had been separated for several decades.
Thus, a casual encounter between a homeless artist and a filmmaker granted that artist recognition, lost relatives, a home and justice. It was also how I learned who my playground artist was.