Richmond County. The Forgotten Boro. Shaolin: Staten Island….
Often, when one envisions New York City, images which come to mind are Manhattan’s skyscrapers, the icons who have called Brooklyn home, the Unisphere symbolizes Queens as the World’s Borough, and an interlocked NY worn all over the globe signifies the greatest sports franchise: the Bronx Bombers.
And Staten Island? Its distinguishable trademark is the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge; the most famous of the borough’s four. Hell, unless you’re from here, you may not recognize “The Verrazano” if you saw it in a picture.
There is no subway commute to Staten Island. You can only enter by way of its four bridges–three of which are connected to New Jersey, and the Verrazano via Brooklyn; or the ferry which transports from Lower Manhattan. If you ask most New Yorkers if they have ever been to or know someone from Staten Island, their answer is usually “no,” or “the only time I am in Staten Island is to drive through to get to [New] Jersey.” The latter of the two is a response you will hear from natives of Long Island (Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk Counties) because if you call any other part of New York home, there are much more convenient options to enter the mainland of the United States (note: the sole part of New York City which isn’t an island and connected to the rest of the US is the Bronx). You don’t live or are “in,” you are on Staten Island;
Very much a part of and shares the essence of New York City, all of the above makes Richmond County a world of its own; one most outsiders have minimal knowledge of. At almost 35 years old, this morning is the first time I learned Staten Island has wild deer and feral cats; the sound of wild turkeys gobbling is an annoying norm and can be seen. Not only was I unaware turkeys roamed the streets in Staten Island until today; but they can also be seen, in packs, in the trees because they can fly (I bet most of you did not know either). For the most part, the furthest extent of most people’s knowledge of the island is racial unrest, the Mafia, and Wu Tang Clan.
My first knowledge of anyone-or anything-with Staten Island was presented in retrospect. From the mid-80’s until the early-90’s, my father was the musical director for the Force MD’s. One of my first memories in life was a concert in which Trisco, Mercury, TC, and Stevie D performed “Touch & Go” at an outside venue, in what had to be 1988. We used to have VHS of one of their live performances, where the music stopped, and in the middle of their concert, all four members sang “Happy Birthday” to my sister and me. While the Force MD’s are mostly remembered for their Quiet Storm and r&b hits, “Tender Love” and “Love is a House,” they were a hip hop group, the first rappers-turned-singers, and therefore, and today’s torchbearers are their direct descendants. “Itchin’ for a Scratch” was released on Tommy Boy Records in 1984.
Albeit osmosis or my collective unconscious, these snapshots of faded memories played a major role in who I have become. I am quite certain it was not my father’s intent; however, by just being around, I wanted to emulate what he did to make an honest living. I spent a lot of my childhood backstage at concerts with interactions with the people thousands paid money to see in close and intimate settings. As a little boy, I was drawn to my dad’s studio in the basement of his parents’ house and attempted to emulate it, every chance I had. A plurality of photographs during my formative years consist of a young Chad Milner, with an instrument-or several-in hand, in his own world, who imagined himself as all he’d seen from a firsthand vantage.
It was not until my adult years in which I consciously came face-to-face with anyone who’d ever lived on the Island. In my sophomore year of college, my reaction to a classmate who said “I’m from Staten Island” was of one who’d met a unicorn. Anyone from Staten Island can and will tell you this is a common occurrence.
Almost a decade later, I met Kweli, the second person I’d ever truly interacted and the first I’d truly known from Staten Island. Even if and though I have said it so many times, I can and will say it again: Kweli, who’d been in the business for years, came across and read work of hundreds of others as a profession, saw this thing I did as a hustle had the potential and upside I didn’t know existed, and made me a writer. In the form of a subtle text message which read “Do you have any editorial experience?” my world expanded because an editor-who probably could tell-said the right thing, at the right time, boosted my confidence and informed me “You belong here: you are one of us.”
I made a whole docu-series about black fatherhood. I produced, directed, shot and edited every frame, created and pieced together every graphic and promotional material attached to it. The only other hand-at all-involved with the creation of Superman With Timbs On, came from Kweli. After a few rough drafts of the series’ introduction, I hit a wall and asked my friend for a separate set of eyes; and she did what she does, very well, and made it great.
When I realized Superman With Timbs On needed representation of fathers from all five boroughs of New York, I knew no one from Staten Island. I asked friends if they knew anyone and everyone replied with a “nah.” It was not until I reached out to Jeff Tepper, my earliest supporter and friend, from Boston who lives in Dallas and well-connected in the online-dad space, “Do you know any dads from Staten Island?” Of course, he did, and introduced me to James Lopez, a Bronx native who resided on The Rock for over a decade.
Since our taping, James had become a peer, trusted professional confidant, and friend. Years after he co-founded The Phat Startup, one of the first hubs and networks from people of color in tech, he’s dedicated his life to Fatherhood is Lit, a multi-faceted platform in which everything he does, is for fathers.
From the beginning to where I am now, a lot of what I have become has a little Shaolin Style in it.