My Brother’s Tribute

My brother David has always been a hero. If he witnesses a purse snatching, he’ll chase the perpetrator down to get a stranger’s belongings back. He saved me more than once from my own self-destructive tendencies when I was young. For years he helped kids from the Bronx become chess champions — going as far as to make sure they had warm coats when their parents couldn’t afford it. He has helped countless people in a variety of situations.

My other brother (a different sort of hero) and I will burst into laughter when he tells stories of his heroics (which he doesn’t even see as heroic!) because they are so typical of him and no one else.

Today I want to share something my brother wrote. It’s a heartbreaking story and a reminder that the world is full of broken people. Sometimes, as David will tell you, a broken person may have an amazing gift to offer.


One of Laura’s Pictures


Laura died last night.

I first met her about six years ago. She was homeless, sitting on the sidewalk on 42nd Street, outside the New York Public Library. She had a sign that said, “Lost everything but my smile.”

I was in a rush to get to a store before it closed, so I barely took notice. She smiled at me as I hurried past. She did indeed have a great smile. On my way back about a half hour later she was still there. This time I slowed down as I approached. We locked eyes; I couldn’t just continue on. I don’t know what possessed me, but I stopped at her sign. She looked at the sign, and then back to me, with a warm and inviting smile.

“So what happened?” I asked. The question surprised me. I didn’t know I was going to say anything. Having asked, I was not sure where this would lead. She was homeless, wearing a dirty, oversized shirt, worn out jeans and shoes that looked like they had been through a war. She didn’t seem to be crazy or drugged out, but you never know. I might have been in for a rough ride through the weird neural firings of a schizophrenic.

Instead, I heard a clear voice telling me of her father’s death from pancreatic cancer and having to sell their house to pay for the extended medical care. She was also the victim of identity theft, which meant she couldn’t get an airline ticket to fly back to grad school in California to continue her art studies. That left her with no options except the street.

I gave her ten dollars to get something to eat, and said I would see her again if this was her normal hang-out.

A few days later I was again in the area, and went by to see if she was still there. She was.

“You said something last time about being in art school. Are you still doing anything with that?”

“No, I don’t have anything to draw on or with.”

“If you did, would you like to get back to your art?”

She thought for a moment. She had been on the street for five years, and although she still had a beautiful smile—I don’t know how she managed that—her sense of who she really was had diminished her self-image to near hopelessness. After a long pensive pause, she looked up.


“I’ll be back,” I said, and walked away. I went to Blik, an art store with everything an artist could ever desire. I came back with a drawing pad, pencils, charcoal, and an eraser.

With tears in her eyes, she gave me a big hug.

I came back a few days later. The pad was nearly full of drawings. The first few showed the initial steps of getting back: sketches of a bench, the tables and chairs in Bryant Park, a few studies of her own hand, a crumbled trash bag, a few portraits. By the middle of the pad, I saw the technique of a trained artist: the statue in Bryant Park with perfect proportions and shadowing, more portraits, and a series of old sailing vessels on the ocean. While the previous drawings were subjects in her immediate view, these last were clearly from her imagination, as there are no sailboats in midtown Manhattan.

We talked for over an hour, first about her art, and then more personal things. Little by little, I learned that her mother was an addict. To support her addiction, she drugged her daughter and let men have their way with her. Laura was twelve when this started. Such abuse never arises full blown from nothing. It is always preceded by other forms of abuse. What terrible things came before will forever remain unknown, but that they occurred is a dead certainty.

In spite of the cascade of horrors that beset her, Laura somehow maintained a heliotropic vision; she was the flower that would not be denied.

When she told me her favorite art medium was watercolor, I went back to Blik. Returning with a midlevel quality of paints, brushes, and a pad for watercolors, I left her for a few days.

When I came back again, she had made a display of her watercolors and had set up a little retail shop on the street. As I approached, she was selling a piece for twenty dollars!

I went back to Blik and got her top of the line water colors, brushes, and more pads. She soon began turning out what looked to me like museum quality work. This woman of the streets was a real talent!

I was certainly not the only one to see the inner beauty and promise of this magnificent spirit. Another benefactor went much further. He was living in Brooklyn, but had an empty apartment down on First Avenue. Suddenly Laura, homeless for five years, had a place to stay indoors, with hot and cold running water, a kitchen, and a door with a lock on it.

She also had met another street person with an art background. When Rob came into her life, one would think a fairy tale ending was in sight. In addition to selling her artwork on the street, she had found jobs teaching art in a homeless shelter and in a private school.

But the fairy tale was not to be. Her teeth were a mess, and that is usually a sign of further problems in the body. Five years on the street, massive drugs from her abusive mother, and god only knows what else, had taken a terrible toll on her body. Her kidneys were damaged, as was her liver and other internal organs.

Over the years, every time we would talk, she would begin with a glowing report of something wonderful that had just happened. She had just gotten a commission from a real estate firm to do water colors of their buildings, she had just gotten a teaching position, an artist from Germany wanted to work with her.

Then as the conversation continued, it would come out that she had been hospitalized a few weeks earlier and they were still trying to figure out where the problem was, or she was undergoing tests for her liver, or an ex-boyfriend was threatening retribution, or she had been attacked by another homeless person who wanted to take over her place on the street.

The good things kept coming, but trouble of one sort or another was always lurking nearby.

A few days ago, I got a call from Rob. “She’s in a coma, and they’re not sure if she’ll make it.”

Yesterday he said, “They think they’re losing her.”

Laura died last night.

My brother has written a memoir about his years as a chess teacher in the Bronx. As soon as it is available for pre-order, I’ll let you know. 



  1. Katya Taylor on January 19, 2024 at 5:37 pm

    Oh what a sad, beautiful, then sad again story. Laura was a talented artist. Had her life not been so tragic, she could have prospered in the art world, had a good home, and security. Your brother made a huge difference in her life, as did the man who gave her an apartment to live in. Thank you so much for sharing this …parable… of the good samaritan, and the woman who had a beautiful smile.

  2. Christine on January 20, 2024 at 7:22 am

    I agree with the comment from Katy’s Taylor, it is certainly a sad but amazing story by your brother, who appears to be a kind and caring person.
    There are so many sad and broken lives, often brought on by drugs and abuse of one kind or another, unfortunately not enough kind and caring people to help make a difference to those who need it.

  3. Michael Ross on January 20, 2024 at 11:09 am

    Sad bug wonderful story. I have visions of trying to set up a scholarship fund for artists, funded in part by selling prints of my son’s work – he died in 2010. But so far haven’t managed it. Stories like this give inspiration.

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