By Caitlin Hawke
Arising Thursday to the horrific news of another mass shooting, this time in Lewiston, Maine, with seemingly 18 victims killed and at least a dozen others injured by a gunman who was still at large, New Yorkers may have come across The West Side Chalker, on Broadway at West 65th Street, as they made their way to work.
Tall, stylish, and, most importantly, flexible enough to fold herself in half, Karin Schall, 61, heads outside when she is upset, and she never fails to bring two things: her free speech and smooth railroad chalk.
While residents of Lewiston were still locked down and terrorized, Karin was up and out early to pour her rage into the street, literally. Uvalde, Buffalo, Boulder, Orlando, Parkland, Nashville, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Midland/Odessa, Colorado Springs, Poway Synagogue, Tree of Life Synagogue. And then Lewiston. She wrote. Each place on its own line in the crosswalk, followed simply by “AR-15” and then by “This is not normal.”
Her point is simple and powerful. Gun violence, and specifically that high-velocity, semi-automatic rifles are so readily available, is unacceptable. And she is sick of it, which makes her fearless in letting her community know. She often thinks of schoolchildren and wants them to know that it is possible to have a safer world.
Fond of calling her longtime neighborhood “beautiful Hell’s Kitchen,” Karin has lived on the West Side since 1994. Every weekday, she makes her way to the Lincoln Center area where she works in theater. In her young-adult days, the city was her oyster; and seeing every show, her pearl.
But over the years, she has become more engaged socially and politically. She now spends a lot of her time showing up. At rallies and protests, in silence, or in chant. An association she admires is Rise and Resist, a direct action group committed to opposing, disrupting, and defeating any government act that threatens democracy, equality, and our civil liberties.
Raised by a progressive mother in the northern part of the “Live Free or Die” state of New Hampshire, Karin’s family were Democrats in a community of Independents and Republicans. In fifth-grade social studies, while learning about presidential races, she was one of two students who were pro-McGovern, while everyone else was pro-Nixon. Her “Let’s put the nix on Nixon and let McGovern govern” poster from that class still makes her chuckle.
But her engagement ended there.
That is until the 2016 presidential campaign which scandalized her and made her realize that democracy and formidable institutions are, in fact, fragile and that citizens have the ability to buttress our institutions. To her, this is a personal responsibility.
Empowered by her idealism, she began communicating with her representatives in Albany and Washington, DC. Her inner-activist came to life. She’s been on the front lines of protests from City Hall to SCOTUS, and, yes, there has been the odd detainment for civil disobedience.
Over the last decade, she’s been exercising her free speech most every day. She says, “I think it’s easier to activate against something than it is to activate for something. And I have thought a lot about that. For me, the two issues that are important are preserving reproductive rights and gun control.” This is where the chalk comes in.
When something egregious to her in the political or social realm occurs on these issues – a regular occurrence – she unzips her signature clear plastic backpack and out comes the sidewalk chalk. Karin expresses herself in curbside soundbites. Careful to chalk in places that are not private property with the occasional exception. Karin has one guilty pleasure: the ubiquitous forest green construction sheds. These are her favorite urban blackboards because the color provides a perfect contrast for her simple, powerful words. Like “love is love.” Or in Karin’s case, like “love is love is love is love is love” all the way down the shed door.
But the New York sidewalk is her true go-to canvas, because she also appreciates the impermanence of her chalkings.
Ten days after last year’s shooting by a white supremacist in upstate New York that killed 10 and injured 3, a shooter in Uvalde killed 22 and wounded 18 in an elementary school, terrorizing the state and the country. Karin’s chalk on an Upper West Side median shouted in all caps, “Be honest, you’ve already forgotten about the Buffalo mass shooting. Enough is now. Don’t despair – Act!”
On birthdays, her friends shower her with gifts of chalk. She has it in every color, but prefers white. Something of a connoisseur, Karin chooses the railroad variety, which is used by engineers to mark bad rails and goes on smoothly. Plus, it has a yellow coating to protect your fingers. But her hands still get coated and she always carries extra bandanas to clean them. Her husband doesn’t bat an eye when her orders arrive in the lobby of their fifth-floor walkup by the caseload. Seventy-two sticks per case.
It seems she’ll be chalking for a while.
New Yorkers are extremely supportive when she is crouched over her lettering, often giving her a thumbs up or stopping to relate their concern with the social state of affairs. Of course, there are detractors. And Karin’s typical reply is to reach out and offer a stump of chalk for them to express their First Amendment right. Generally, they move on.
Karin says, “everyone has their issues whether it’s their children’s school or animal rights or political causes… [W]e’re all in this city living cheek by jowl, one on top of each other. I think we’re much more patient and open to those around us but we’re not living in an equal world. Expressing myself by lettering in the street is part of my doing something that is at times kind or empathic, at time silly, and upon occasion angry. It’s just part of the bigger package of what makes me whole.”
This story came about when WSR posted this Photo of the Day in an April link: https://www.westsiderag.com/2023/04/11/photo-of-the-day-66th-street-and-columbus-avenue. Caitlin Hawke identified Karin Schall, a friend, and WSR asked Caitlin to write more.
Caitlin is a longtime resident of Bloomingdale – also known as the upper Upper West Side. She is an occasional contributor to the West Side Rag. History buffs may appreciate her blogposts about Bloomingale here [link: https://www.w102-103blockassn.org/blog/category/history]
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