By Mary Willis
Hans Honschar, aka “Ace,” is crouched over the pavement in front of Zen Medica on West 72nd street putting the finishing touches on a Dalai Lama quotation etched in perfect calligraphic print in a rainbow of colored chalk.
than ever before
life must be charac/
terized by a sense/
of universal respon/
sibility, not only
nation to nation/
and human to human
but also human to
other forms of life.
His signature chalking can be seen all over the Upper West Side–snippets of poetry, quotations, aphorisms and the names of passersby who pay him to see their names printed on the pavement of the city. The last time New Yorkers took the time to look down when they hurried to work or strolled in the park was before the Pooper Scooper Law was enacted in 1978.
Walking up Broadway at so fast a clip it’s a challenge to keep up, Ace heads uptown to Westsider Books at 2246 Broadway where he chalks every Friday for $25. On a good week when the weather is warm, he can make $200, but in the winter, he has to widen his canvas to include lettering sandwich boards for restaurants.
Setting down his bucket of chalk, he splashes the pavement with water — his secret to creating letters that “pop.” “I have the best handwriting in the Tri-State area,” he boasts with good reason. A stocky 41-year-old, with a shock of wavy brown hair and deep-set brown eyes, his hands may be rough and chapped, but his writing is fluid and smooth, each letter crafted in alef font and carefully framed so as not to block the entire sidewalk.
He stops to greet a very pregnant woman sailing by. “Congratulations!” he jumps up and claps his hands. “You look beautiful!” A moment later, he approaches a man in a wheelchair and tells him a joke. He’s known to toot the whistle he wears around his neck for no apparent reason or to let out a spontaneous hoot of joy when the spirit moves him. And though he’s not Jewish, he wishes a young Orthodox couple “Shabbat Shalom.”
Over a recent lunch where he asked politely if he could order a steak, mashed potatoes, corn, salad and iced-tea, he talked about his life. “I was born in Halifax, but grew up in Florida,” he said tucking into his meal. “But every time I ate a bagel and saw New York, New York printed on the label, I knew that’s where I wanted to be.”
Raised in a strict Christian home with no secular entertainment, the family prayed three times a day and went to a Pentecostal Church “where they spoke in tongues and did a laying on of hands.” His mother died when he was thirteen and he had to look after his toddler siblings while his father worked. Four months shy of his eighteenth birthday, Ace left Florida and returned to Nova Scotia. “To the place where I was born. The place where my story began.”
After high school, he traveled all over Canada, living in Montreal (“Leonard Cohen was a big draw”), Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa where he fell in love and had his heart broken. “That’s when I started writing poetry,” he launches into a recitation of his poem Euphoria–“I am coming back to you soon/(if you will have me) so let us leave it to fate/to arrange the coincidence/of our togetherness…” one of seventy-seven poems he wrote under the title “A Symphony of Sparrows,” never published but registered with the National Library of Canada.
“I needed that love to kick start me,” he said waiting for the waiter to wrap up his unfinished meal to share with friends in Strawberry Fields, the place where his love affair with the Upper West Side began. “Even if I could afford a room in the Bronx or Queens, I wouldn’t want to live there. You grow where you’re planted and for me that’s Manhattan.”
“Once I got to New York, I felt like I’d come home,” he continues. “In Florida when I wrote follow your bliss in front of the public library, nobody got it, but I prefer quoting Joseph Campbell or writing a Pablo Neruda poem than Jesus Loves You in the parking lot of Wal-Mart.”
The next Sunday, on a balmy spring day, we meet in Washington Square Park, his bucket of chalk dangling from the handlebars of an old bike stuck in third gear, a knapsack on his back. He wears knee pads, a bright orange construction vest and a Free Tibet cap in red, yellow and blue. Collin Higgins, a young pianist whom he befriended when he first came to the city, is playing Rhapsody in Blue on a grand piano to a gathering crowd.
Ace approaches two pretty girls and asks if he can write their names in a heart. Or if they prefer a star or a flower. Within seconds, he knows their names, date of birth and where they’re from. “What’s your favorite color,” he asks. “Purple,” one answers. “The color of royalty,” he compliments her choice with a courtly flourish. “For five dollars I’ll take your picture,” he says when he’s finished. “And for ten you can take mine.”
In two hours he’s made $63. Like many men before him, he came to New York to write the great American novel and doesn’t complain about his hardscrabble, solitary life. “I’m still paying my dues,” he says matter-of-factly then rattles off a quote from Ibsen. “The strongest men are the most alone. I discovered Charles Bukowski when I was fifteen and figured if he could write poems, stories and novels, so could I.”
Back on the Upper West Side where his colorful chalkings decorate the pavement like spring flowers, a young woman dressed in torn tights, Doc Marten’s and tattoos up her arm notices that she’s walking on a cluster of names edged with butterfly wings in front of the Westside Market on Broadway and 77th. She jumps like she’s stepped on a snake.
“I hate to walk on art,” she says apologetically. “I don’t know who does these things, but it totally beautifies the neighborhood.”