What does it take for two different people to find common ground? To answer that, we dig into a nine-year-old mystery. In 2011, two very different guys shared a pair of earbuds on the New York City subway. A photo of them went viral multiple times … but who were they, and what were they really doing? All is revealed.
Jason Feifer: This is Build For Tomorrow, a show about how change happens. I'm Jason Feifer. I want to tell you the story of the greatest photograph I've ever taken. It's a photograph that's gotten a lot of attention, and I've thought about it a lot since I took it nine years ago. It's a photo that seems to capture a better world, a world of tolerance and equality that so many people are rightfully demanding right now. But in truth, it's also a photo I never really understood and that I made many wrong assumptions about, because I didn't know the people in the photo, and they had no idea I took it. So, anyway, here's what happened.
The year was 2011 and I was riding the subway in New York City where I live. I was looking down at my phone as usual, and then I looked up for some reason and saw this amazing scene. There were two guys sitting next to each other who couldn't have looked more different. The guy on the right was this medium build blonde haired White guy who looked like a first-year lawyer. He wore a black pinstripe suit with a tie drooping way past his waist, and he had a pencil sticking out of his front pocket. To his left was a man that was basically the exact opposite of him. It was this skinny guy with darker skin, a big afro, cool sunglasses perched on top, and he had these bright flashy sneakers. And by itself, of course, there's nothing unique about these guys sitting next to each other. The beauty of New York is that it contains so many different kinds of people, and then it squeezes them together tightly so they're all shoulder to shoulder.
But when strangers are next to each other on the subway, they usually stay in their own worlds. Not these guys, though. These guys were sharing a single pair of earbuds. Picture it: a blue wire coming out of each of their ears, joining together into an iPhone or something, which the White guy was holding. But the guys weren't looking at each other. Both were looking at the phone. And when I saw this, I thought two things. Number one, what are they listening to? And number two, I need to take a photo now. Because at the time I was just thinking, this is like the New York moment. It's the kind of thing that makes the city magical, when infinite possibility produces a perfect small, beautiful moment in time. Here were two very different guys, from what I assumed were very different backgrounds, sharing something in this very intimate way. It's life as it should be.
And also, not for nothing, but this moment went against the way we normally think of technology, too. When people started walking around with headphones in the 1980s, nobody saw the potential for shared experiences. Instead they warned of the exact opposite. Here's the Associated Press radio in 1984.
Speaker 2: Critics of the Walkman say the headset mindset excludes the outside world.
Jason Feifer: And here's the CBS Evening News in 1981.
Speaker 3: Just about anywhere you go this weekend, you may be listening to music, or if you're really lucky, as Bernard Goldberg reports, you may be watching people listening to music.
Speaker 4: Is it the me generation gone wild, the height of antisocial behavior, electronic snobbery?
Jason Feifer: But here in front of my eyes on the subway, the exact opposite of that was happening. A thing accused of people pulling apart was bringing people together. Though, it wasn't entirely clear how. So, I was looking at these guys sharing earbuds on the subway and took a photo quickly and secretly so they wouldn't see me. Then I posted it to social media and also sent it to some friends at New York Magazine. They loved it, and they put it in the approval matrix, which is this page in the back of the magazine that ranks things based on whether they're low brow or high brow and despicable or brilliant. They ranked my photo lowbrow and brilliant and wrote, "Only in New York, kids." Right next to it, completely unrelated, but also ranking low brow and brilliant, was a photo of Yo Yo Ma lying down on a bathroom floor next to a wombat. So, that was fun. And I felt like I'd given this little New York moment it's due. And life went on. Five years passed, and then in January of 2016, during a GOP presidential primary debate, Senator Ted Cruz said this.
Ted Cruz: I think most people know exactly what New York values are.
Speaker 6: I am from New York. I know.
Ted Cruz: You're from New York, so you might not. But I promise you in the state of South Carolina, they do.
Jason Feifer: Oh, Ted Cruz. He seemed so proud of himself as he insulted... What was he insulting? People who work hard and live in small apartments? I remember sitting at home watching this and thinking, "What's my definition of New York values?" And then that old photo popped into my head, the one of two very different men sharing music on the subway. "That's it," I thought, "That is the beauty that this city stands for." So. I tweeted the photo with the hashtag #NewYorkvalues, and it blew up. And then Buzzfeed included it in a post headline, 35 Tweets About NYC That Will Make You Laugh Harder Than You Should, which okay, not exactly what I was going for, but I was glad more people got to see it.
And then, four more years passed. In May of 2020 in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Arbery and so many other Black people at the hands of racism and oppression, demonstrations for Black Lives Matter spread across the world. I wanted to share something supportive on social media and then thought once more to that old photo. It just reappeared in my brain. At this point, I'd been thinking about this photo for years and it had taken on a greater meaning for me. It felt like a shining moment, this image of all that could be right. So, I posted it on Instagram, along with a note that included this, "We have the ability to bring each other so much joy, but that starts by recognizing how equally valuable we all are." Within a day, more than 1,000 people had liked the photo, and one of them was a woman named Maria.
Maria: My name Is Maria Hadjipolycarpou, and I'm a lecture at the University of Illinois, teaching language and literature.
Jason Feifer: Marie saw the photo and built a little story in her head. Maybe she figured these guys were both commuting home from work and one was interested in what the other one was listening to. And then-
Maria: Two people just who are in their own world, very unique and very accepting of who they are, who they truly are, and their personality, they find each other.
Jason Feifer: So, she shared my photo on her Instagram stories, which for those who don't know, means it's visible for 24 hours to her followers and then it disappears. Maria has a private account with about 900 followers, so not a lot of people were going to see it, but at the 23rd hour, just before it was gone, a car detailer in Queens named Mike Pappas saw it. Mike met Maria at a coffee shop a few years earlier, and they became friends. And when Mike saw the photo, he had a very different reaction. He wasn't thinking, "Oh, that's beautiful." He was thinking, "What?"
Speaker 8: I'm like, "Oh my God. Some total stranger took a picture of my friend on the subway just being himself."
Jason Feifer: I didn't know it yet, but the mystery of this photograph was about to be solved. Now, before we go any further, I want to explain the purpose of this episode. If you're a regular listener to Build For Tomorrow, you know that this show seeks to understand how change happens and what it takes for people to embrace change. And we usually do that by looking at the history of innovations. But right now, we are in a moment of massive and overdue social change. And it got me thinking about how innovations aren't the only thing seen as scary and different. People are often seen that way, too. And the reason for that is deep and systemic and historical and ugly, and I will not pretend to have all the answers here. But what I do have is this story, this delightful story, about one small but beautiful moment and the hopefulness we can draw from it. So, that's what I want to offer you today. It is a feel-good tale of togetherness nine years in the making. All will be revealed after the break.
All right, we're back. So, like I said, I posted this photo three times in 2011, 2016, and most recently on Tuesday, June 2nd, 2020. That next morning, I woke up around 6:00 AM, checked Instagram, and saw a very confusing DM in my inbox. Someone had sent me three pictures of a guy doing break dancing moves or something, and then there was a message that just said, "Hey, he's a good friend of mine.' I was tired and bleary-eyed, and I stared at the DM for a while trying to make sense of it. I zoomed in on the breakdancing guy who had a big beard and even bigger hair. Who was he? I didn't recognize him. And then I sat up straight in bed, like a machine that had just been booted up because I suddenly understood when I was looking at, it was one of the guys from my photo, the one with the big afro. So, how did this happen? Well, it's thanks to the internet magic you heard a moment ago. I posted the photo, Maria reposted it, and then Mike, that's the guy Maria met at a coffee shop, well, Mike saw Maria's posts just before it disappeared and recognized his friend in it.
Speaker 8: I'm like, "Yeah, I'm going to message him. He definitely took this picture. He would definitely love to learn more about the person in it."
Jason Feifer: Of course, that is exactly what I wanted. So, okay, let's start with the basics. The guy with the afro, his name is Danny, and if you knew Danny, it would come as no surprise that he's sitting on a subway sharing earbuds with what appears to be a perfect stranger. Because according to Mike, Danny is just unlike anyone else.
Speaker 8: He can mesh with anyone. If you put him in a room with four walls, the walls will love him by the of the day. It's just how he is.
Jason Feifer: Mike and Danny became friends in high school back in 2006. I asked Mike to share a story that captures the essence of Danny, like the quintessential Danny moment, and so Mike told me about this day in high school where they decided to skip class. They met up with some girls, and then just started strolling the city. And as they did, the same thing kept happening. Danny knew everyone.
Speaker 8: We're just going around to Chinatown, running into his friends and Chinatown, running into his friends in Soho, running into his friends everywhere. Everywhere we went that day, we ran into people that Danny knew that were in different walks of life. And I'm like, "Dude, this guy is literally a chameleon." You could put him in any scenario or anywhere in New York City, he has a friend there.
Jason Feifer: So, of course, I asked him to put me in touch with Danny. Danny, who I sat across from on a subway nine years ago, and whose photo I had blasted around the internet and who I had wondered about ever since, Danny, who it turns out seems to hold a skill we could all really use, which is the ability to connect with people very different from us, and Danny, who, to my great relief, was very happy when he saw my photo.
Danny Nieves: Given everything that is going through our feeds that we're all posting, that we're all seeing, it put a smile on my face. It was amazing.
Jason Feifer: This, of course, is Danny.
Danny Nieves: The guy I was sitting with, his name is Matt. I haven't spoken to him in years. I hope he's okay. But he was a good dude, too. I remember that whole day. It was hilarious.
Jason Feifer: As it turns out, I had captured a very specific, very awesome moment. Danny knows the exact thing that was happening and the exact thoughts in his head when I took that photo. But to really appreciate it, you first need to know a few things about Danny. So, let's rewind. Danny grew up in Harlem and identifies as Afro-Latino. His full name is Daniel Nieves, but nobody calls him that.
Danny Nieves: I feel like if someone's like Daniel Nieves, it's either like you're presenting me with something or I'm in trouble.
Jason Feifer: Instead, everyone knows him as Danny Rokit. That's R-O-K-I-T, Rokit, which is like his stage name. Danny's member of a group called the Break Fresh NYC, which sees itself as a defender and promoter of hip hop.
Danny Nieves: It's like a collective of the underground version of hip hop that I feel as if we hold true to and not what the media plays it to be.
Jason Feifer: So, to be clear, here's what Danny talks about when he talks about hip hop.
Danny Nieves: Hip pop is comprised of four elements. It's going to be b-boying, which is really what break dancing is called. Technically, we call ourselves dancers at the end of the day, but let's start with b-boying to make it easy. B-boying equals break dancing. So, b-boying, emceeing, deejaying, and graffiti, those four things are, in reality, what hip hop is. And then for the OG the, the fifth one would be overstanding, having an understanding that all of those things equals one, that all of those things is hip hop. Not one of those things, but all of those things.
Jason Feifer: So, if you're looking to have an extended about what is and isn't hip hop, Danny is your guy. He will do that all day. Which artist is hip hop, which event is hip hop. He hates how the commercialization of hip hop makes things unavailable for people who are part of the culture and how it gets misrepresented through monetization. To push back on that, his group Break Fresh NYC does a lot of things. The way Danny says it, they hold events to have a safe space for the creation of hip hop as they know it to be. They have a DJ that spins actual vinyl, a mic in case anyone wants to rap, and they even make their own shirts to bring the graffiti element without spray painting the venue walls. Danny is the emcee. They also produce videos and mini documentaries and celebrate hip hop's musicality. And his group will also show up at other events, events that they think are not pure hip hop, just to make a point.
Danny Nieves: We'll go to a break dance event and not enter. We'll just be by the sideline. And the [cipher 00:15:44] is getting hype on the side. We'll battle the judges if we feel like they did a call that's wrong. If somebody winds up doing nothing but power moves and we feel like that's not hip hop, battle us. That's Break Fresh.
Jason Feifer: And I have to say this element of Danny surprised me at first, because here's this guy who gets along with everybody, but he's also... Haven't we all met people who draw hard lines about what something is or isn't, and aren't they insufferable? I mean, don't get me wrong, I have been that insufferable snob. I was a ska kid in the '90, and I tortured people talking about first wave Jamaican ska and who sold out and how that band you like isn't real ska. No Doubt isn't ska. Okay? It is not ska. Oh, sorry, I guess I still have it in me. Anyway, now when I look back at that time in my life, I see insecurity.
Like in a big and scary world, I'd found something narrow that I could claim as my own, and I used it to make myself feel better than everyone outside of it. It's a form of resisting change, I think. Anything that might challenge me or force me out of my comfort zone, well, I had an excuse for why it was bad. I was exclusionary. And yet, I don't get that vibe from Danny. He doesn't seem like someone who needs that crutch. So, I said to him, "What you're saying sounds kind of exclusionary, but I don't think that's what you're up to." And he said, "Yeah," he's thought a lot about that.
Danny Nieves: I had this great conversation with somebody recently. They're like, "Well, at the end of the day, don't you think people are going to see you to be like a hater of some kind?" And I'm like, "You know what? I'll be a hater if it means I'm putting a stop to people bastardizing what saved my life."
Jason Feifer: What saved his life. He uses that phrase a lot like-
Danny Nieves: Anytime I talk about it, it's because hip hop saved my life.
Jason Feifer: So, I asked him, can you explain what you mean there? You said it a few times, hip hop saved your life.
Danny Nieves: Yeah. Born and raised in Harlem. Don't get me wrong, I did school, but like... How do I explain this quick? I feel like things aren't me, and given the circle that I have, given the experience that I have, given what I've been through and where I've been, it's like I feel as if I didn't have something to get my emotions out in a way that's like, not the norm, not like toxically masculine or like whatever people in the hood would say like, "Don't do that. You can't do that. That's not the correct way to..." Like growing up in the hood, you have this cookie cutter image of what you're supposed to do, who you're supposed to be, how you're supposed to act, and it's really confusing when you don't know what to do, you don't know who to turn to, who to talk to, because it's like, well, this is just...
If you talk to somebody about that, it's like, "No, you can't do that. I'm sorry that you feel that way, but you should stop feeling that way." So, I was like, "Well, damn." A lot of the times I was alone through most of it trying to figure out who I was and what I was supposed to do, shit like that. But as soon as I found dancing, I found like, this is a way to get that energy out that's like constructive, like I'm doing something. This could potentially be a career.
Jason Feifer: Danny's parents weren't married and lived in different parts of the city, so as a little kid, he spent a lot of time being shuttled back and forth between them. The handoff spot was at Grand Central, and there were always dancers there. Danny was just amazed by them. He saw them as superheroes, these people in full control of their bodies, collectively creating something amazing. In middle school, he decided he wanted to learn how to do that, but the only class he could find was in his local high school, which wouldn't allow him in.
Danny Nieves: So, in the middle, well, I would watch from the cafeteria windows and I'd see the instructor do something and then try it myself and then keep just teaching myself through that. And then by the time I got to the high school, they still had the class, but they were teaching beginners, and I was like, "Well, I kind of know this already."
Jason Feifer: So, he just went out into the city, befriending and learning people on the street. He'd see someone doing impressive stuff, and he would just ask them how it was done. And in the process, Danny found exactly the thing he was lacking back in his neighborhood. He found belonging.
Danny Nieves: This doesn't make me feel like I'm doing something wrong. Like everything felt correct when I thought about it or when I was doing something. Or even if I was afraid to do something, it was like, "Well, try it anyway. It's dance. What could happen?" When a lot of my friends ended up dead in jail, selling drugs, doing gangster shit. It's what New York City is sometimes, it's what Harlem is, it's what certain projects are. So, that's definitely why I keep saying like dance and hip hop saved my life. Being able to find music, being able to host my own events that are safe spaces for people to think the way that I thought wasn't safe to think and have these conversations. Or finding a group of people that I could do this with that I wasn't even throwing the event now, I'm just finding my people. And it's all the same frequency and energy. That's why I keep saying it like that.
Jason Feifer: So, when Danny is focused on this pure version of hip hop, he's not doing it to be exclusionary. Quite the opposite. He's doing it because he knows what this version of hip hop can produce, a life saving community, a place for people who shared his journey. That's not available in $250 shoes or $300 a seat concerts or events where nobody exactly agrees on what they're doing or why they're there. Danny sees himself not as a gatekeeper, but as an ambassador, someone who can bring people into this community and ensure that it remains vibrant.
In time, Danny would become known in this world, he'd get paid to dance, he'd be invited to travel the world and educate people. But hip hop wasn't the only thing Danny was interested in. He enrolled at the New York City College of Technology in 2010 to get a degree in computer information systems. In his second year of college, on the first or second day, he was hanging out between classes when a fellow student came up to him. This kid did not look anything like Danny. He was White, he was wearing a suit, and frankly, the kid just looked square. But he was friendly.
Danny Nieves: He noticed me. He was like, "Yo, so what exactly do you do?" I'm like, "Yeah, I dance. I'm about to go to the bridge to have a little smoke in between classes, so you don't really look like the type." He was like, "Man, let's go."
Jason Feifer: This is how Danny met Matt, the other guy in the photo. And in a few hours time, they'd be sitting across from me in the subway. Coming up after a quick break, we meet Matt. We finally learned what those guys were listening to. We explore just how much and just how little a picture can really show. And we try answering a question we should all be grappling with these days. What does it take for two people to find common ground?
Jason Feifer: All right. We're back. So, quick recap here, Danny is between classes at the start of his sophomore year of college, and he has just met Matt, a fellow student who's in his class. Then, the two go for a little smoke.
Danny Nieves: We coincidentally had the two same classes back to back, so he introduced himself that first class, I was like, "All right, well, come on, let's go chill." And we went back for the same class, and once again, coincidentally, that we were done with the day, so we just took the train and went home.
Jason Feifer: They both lived in the same direction so were both taking the same subway. And as they sat, they started talking about the music they listened to. Danny was listening to a lot of MF Doom at the time and started telling Matt about some of Doom's early stuff, back when he went by the name, Zev Love X and was part of a group called KMD. And Matt said, "Oh, I know all about this. I love hip hop." And of course, you know what Danny thinks when someone says that, he thinks, "Do they love hip hop, or do they love something they think is hip hop?" So, Matt takes out his phone to show Danny what he's got because, remember, this is 2011, Spotify had just launched in the US that year, so for most people, listening to music meant listening to something you'd actually gotten an MP3 of and stored on your phone. So, Matt pulls up his music and hands Danny one of his earbuds to listen with.
Danny Nieves: And I'm like kind of side-eyeing his phone because I really did not believe that he... I'm like, "Man, this guy is a business dude. He doesn't listen to Zev Love X, let alone Doom.
Jason Feifer: And that's when I looked up from across the subway and snapped a photo. When I've looked at this photo over the years, I've always wondered about Danny's expression. He looks so skeptical, and I figured he wasn't into what he was hearing, but as it turns out, I caught the moment just before Danny realized, "Oh wow, this White guy in a business suit really does love the early work of MF Doom."
Danny Nieves: He's a really eclectic a rapper that his lyricism is beyond, so people don't even really understand what he's saying. So, for me to put somebody on it, he was like, "Man, I know this. Check game." I was like, "Okay, let me see." He really did, though. He had the whole album. Really cool time. Really cool time.
Jason Feifer: This is Peach Fuzz by KMD. Danny doesn't remember exactly what song they were listening to on the subway, but he thinks it was either this one or another one called Black Bastards. And that finally answers a question I'd wondered for nine years, except it's now been replaced with another. How did this guy in a business suit become so well-versed in MF Doom?
Matt McDonnell: Hey, Jason, how are you?
Jason Feifer: Good. How are you?
Matt McDonnell: I'm doing pretty well.
Jason Feifer: This is Matt.
Matt McDonnell: The nostalgia of just being on the train and looking back when I had a full head of hair. No, it was just great to see.
Jason Feifer: Matt's full name is Matthew McDonnell, and yes, he will admit, the last nine years have not been kind to his hair.
Matt McDonnell: I was showing my wife. Again, I'm bringing up the hair. I was like, "Look at the hair."
Jason Feifer: As Matt and I talked about that day on the train, he said Danny was not the only one to be surprised by his deep knowledge of hip hop. He gets it. He sees what people see. And we're not just talking about hair.
Matt McDonnell: There's the idea that having somebody like me listen to the music I listen to, you might be like, "Whoa, what's going on here?" But it's all incredible. And I gave up on stereotypes. I joke about them, but I can't take them seriously because at the end of the day, I'm a contradiction to most stereotypes there are.
Jason Feifer: Matt was raised Jewish. His dad is Irish. And Matt is now married to a woman from Mexico who loves Marilyn Manson. Matt grew up in Midtown, New York, which is where he still lives today, and that provided him with a really diverse childhood. His mom's best friend is west Indian, so he spent a lot of time in that community. And in his schools, he was often in the minority.
Matt McDonnell: When I was younger, I went to a school called Ella Baker. I think I was one of like four or five White kids in the entire building.
Jason Feifer: As he and his peers became older, they became aware of their differences, of course, but they were more excited by what brought them together. One of those things was hip hop, and some of Matt's friends became rappers.
Matt McDonnell: I've just always loved hearing people... See, I even used the freestyle just for fun. I wasn't any good. We'd go in a circle when we were hanging out. It's so much fun.
Jason Feifer: Matt talks about hip hop on a lot of different levels. He appreciates the pure art and skill of it and the ideas it contains and the way it can capture people's experiences. And as I listened to him, it occurred to me that Matt was talking about hip hop in an emotionally similar way that Danny does, which is to say it created community. Each found that community in different ways for different needs, but still, it was something to bond over.
Matt McDonnell: It definitely helps you understand what people go through, but I feel like there's so many ways to relate to it. People forget that the people that are either middle class or poor, everybody, unless you're rich, you're probably struggling somewhat in this world, and that's a lot of what some hip hop talks about. And to me, that's what really drew me in the struggle and to get past it, just motivation, keeping yourself in the right position.
Jason Feifer: Much earlier in this episode, I shared some old news clips that claimed headphones are antisocial, all from people who could not have imagined a world in which Danny and Matt were using the technology the way that they did, and so I think it's worth pointing out that much worse has been said and in much nastier more racist ways about the music that, in the case of these two friends, was coming out of the supposedly anti-social listening devices. Like here's Mississippi State Senator Chris McDaniel in a teaser for a talk radio show he used to host.
Chris McDaniel: I don't know anything about hip hop that's been good for this country, and it's not.
Jason Feifer: And here's Geraldo Rivera.
Geraldo Rivera: Hip hop has done more damage to Black and brown people than racism in the last 10 years.
Jason Feifer: Over and over, you can find things that actually bring people together and then see pundits and politicians claim that those things pull us apart. And you have to wonder, who wins when people are torn apart, and who might have an incentive to keep it that way? And this is why I love the story of Danny and Matt. It's about intersections. It's about multiple ways into the same thing. It's about togetherness now, despite where you started. And this got me thinking about the photo and the number of assumptions that I made and that I suppose many people who saw the photo made too, in order for it to resonate the way that it did. A photo is a single moment in time, divorced from any context, which isn't all that different from our experience anytime we see anyone anywhere. We know nothing except whatever momentary information we get. And we judge based on that.
So, okay, consider this. One of the reasons that the photo is so striking is that Danny and Matt are dressed totally differently. Danny looks like an artist, and Matt's all business-like in a suit. That suit is the reason Danny originally didn't think Matt wanted to go smoke a joint. And frankly, it's one of the big reasons the photo is as striking as it is, because they look so different. But wait, why was Matt wearing a suit that day?
Matt McDonnell: So, I was trying to figure that out, too. I didn't really wear suits too often, so it was either I had an interview or a death in the family.
Jason Feifer: So, it wasn't just that I looked up and saw these guys across the subway, it's that I looked up and saw these guys on the one random day that Matt either had a job interview or a funeral to go to. Without the suit, it's still great to see two guys of different races share earbuds, but they'd look a lot less different. I made a judgment based on a fluke. So, I have to admit that as I talked to these guys, I started questioning what I had done in the first place and what I'd revealed about my own biases and assumptions.
I live in New York now, but I didn't grow up there. I grew up in suburban south Florida in the '80s and '90s, when most everyone I interacted with was White and Jewish like me. My graduating high school class had, I don't know, it couldn't have been more than five Black kids in it. So, decades later as an adult, when I'm sitting on the subway and I look up to see a White guy and an Afro-Latino guy sharing earbuds, my instinct is to think, "Wow, how unusual." But maybe if I grew up like Danny or Matt did, I'd just think, "There were two guys sharing earbuds." Which made me wonder, do you think that if you were in my seat on that subway and you looked up and you saw Danny and somebody else, some other guy, me, whatever, I wonder if you would have even seen that moment as unique and worth photographing.
Matt McDonnell: I don't know if I would have photographed it. I definitely would have had to laugh because it's just the concept that people even have to question like, "Should they be hanging out together? Should they sit together?" It's pretty mind boggling because... Again, it makes perfect sense. It's not something you would see every day. We're both from New York City, but completely... He's from Harlem, I'm from Midtown. I was wearing a suit, he's got the crazy... I completely get it. I think the same question that you asked is what were they listening to? That probably would have dawned on me. I might've even had to ask. I try not to think too much of it because at the end of the day, I'd like to think that that's the direction we're going anyway, but I think it's important to also capture those moments like you did because not everybody understands our reality.
Jason Feifer: I asked Danny a similar question. I said, "Look, I saw you guys, and you guys look different, and so I assumed you were different. And was that a bad assumption to make?" But he said-
Danny Nieves: No. No, no, no. No. II don't think that's a bad assumption to make at all. It's so evident. I have a Steep Tech and infrared Air Maxes on, with a giant afro, and then you got a dude with a suit next to me. And then we're sharing headphones. What's going on there? So, no, I don't think it's wrong to assume that at all, because that's the beauty of hip hop, or that's just the beauty of togetherness. That's love. Just having one little interest and then just running with it, having fun with that.
Jason Feifer: The problem isn't acknowledging differences, he's saying. Of course we have differences. The problem is seeing our differences as everything
Danny Nieves: I feel like in New York City, the instant question everywhere you go, everyone's always like, "So, what do you do?" And it's instantly like, "What's your paycheck?" And then from there, people can just judge you, and instantly just like, "Oh, well you make this money. I can respect you this way," or, "You do these things, so we can talk about these things." Instead of doing that, whenever someone asks me, "What do you do?" I instantly tell them I dance. And they're like, "So, this is your paycheck?" And I'm like, "No, I work at a watch store." We can have a conversation about that, but that has nothing to do with anything else. What I do is like who I am, that's hip hop, that's dance, so let's talk about that."
And then I'll try to separate myself from it and be like, "Your turn. What do you do?Please inform me so that we can continue the conversation." I can bring it back to hip hop all the time. Because I feel like anytime I come into a conversation, hip hop is like a puppy to me. It's like, "Here, let me show you puppy." And everyone's always like, "Oh, puppies!" But I try to do the same for people, too. What do you do? And then instantly, people will be like, "Well, this is what I do for a living." And I'm like, "All right, that's cool. I appreciate that. But what do you do?" And if that is what you do, that's not only your job, but it's like your passion and your love, bangs with it. If it's not, that's cool too."
Jason Feifer: Pick any two random people, put them together, can they find something in common?
Danny Nieves: Totally. Totally. But see, the thing is they have to be open with themselves to find that in the other person. It's so easy for me to do it because I love myself that much that I can just detach from myself to be like, "Well, what's this person about?" Even if it wasn't hip hop, it could be two complete other random people talking about their loves. One can be like archeology and the other person's a librarian or something. You know what I mean? This is this dope book about archeology.
So, there's something that everyone can meet and look with that same way, that someone's going to be like, "Nah, I don't think you really know," but then they do know. And it was a beautiful experience in sharing because you find out that the person that you didn't think was about it really is. We don't have something in common with all of the physical things or all of our actual interests. The way that you feel so fervently for your thing, I feel for my thing. And here's my thing. That's another... now we connect. There's always a way to do it, but you have to be able to separate and listen and just love.
Jason Feifer: Danny mentioned archeology, so here's a little something about archeology. Around the year 500 BC, give or take a few decades, an inscription nearly 50 feet tall was made on a rock relief on a cliff in what's now known as the Kermanshah Province of Iran. It was written in cuneiform, one of the oldest systems of writing, known for its wedge shaped marks on clay tablets. And as time moved on and the language disappeared, people who visited the area could see the scripts on the cliff, but they had no idea what it said. For thousands of years, various explorers and scholars would claim the writing was dedicated to this or that royalty or this or that religion. By the 1600s, some European saw it and said it was about Christianity. People saw basically what they already knew because that's often as far as people can see.
But in 1835 and officer of the British East India Company named Sir Henry Rawlinson was stationed near the inscription and started studying it in earnest. This was not easy. He had to scale the cliff to get close enough to clearly see and carefully transcribe it. And as it turns out, the inscription was something of a Rosetta stone. It wasn't one single piece of writing, it was actually one piece of writing written in three different languages. By this point in history, scholars had made good headway in deciphering. One of the languages, known as Old Persian, which in turn helped understand the other two. This would crack open our ability to access some of the oldest words ever written. Our ancient ancestors, so different from us, could suddenly speak. And what did they say? Well, the inscription on the cliff was about the Persian king Darius the Great, but that's not really the interesting part.
The interesting part to me at least is that clay tablets with cuneiform writing are scattered throughout the region. They are, in fact, so common and widespread that new ones are still found today, and scholars began to them all. These tablets weren't generally produced by some king, they were simply the things people wrote down. Some turned out to be religious stories or laws or records of trade, but others were just life, regular life, letters from one person to another. They were expressions of love and jealousy and fear and hope and ambition. Someone named Walrod Gula wrote to their father, "I cannot sleep at night on account of worrying about you." A woman named Away Aja wrote to her brothers saying that when he visited her for 10 days recently, "I was so pleased about it that I did not then report to you on my situation." The situation was that she's starving and worries about dying of hunger, but was uncomfortable saying so, and she hopes he'll send her some barley.
Meanwhile, a boy named Adad Abam also wanted a delivery, though for a different reason. He sent a clay tablet to his dad that said, "I have never before written to you for something precious I wanted. If you want to be like a father to me, get me a fine string of beads to be worn around the head." Another from a servant named Yakam Adu is about a lion that got stuck in his lord's house and began to starve. He wrote, "I was worrying. Heaven forbid that this lion pine away." So, scared as he was, he got the lion in a cage.
I find these letters transfixing. I've read through them many times over the years because they're so recognizable, as if we've looked back thousands of years into a hazy world full of unknowable people just to discover versions of ourselves, which feels surprising, but also, why would it be surprising? We're all the same humans, after all. When we imagine other people, people not like us, whether separated by time or religion or region or race, it's so easy to forget this. We work off of a limited understanding, something as flat as a hastily taken photo on a subway. But what we miss is that, sure, the details of another person's life isn't our own, but that's not everything. It's like Danny says, he may be passionate about one thing and you may be passionate about something else, but you're both passionate. The thing in common is at your very core. Dig deep enough, and the thing that makes you you also makes you us. The world is that small, if we'll allow it.
In fact, as I talked to Danny and Matt, I discovered how small our own worlds are. Danny, for example, had already seen the photo I took years ago. I always thought that I'd hear from one of the guys should either of them ever see the photo, but Danny just wasn't that surprised that some stranger would have posted a picture of him on the internet.
Danny Nieves: So, believe it or not, similar things have happened like this where I just popped up.
Jason Feifer: People take pictures of him all the time, he says. I mean, just scan your eyes around a subway, and he's the guy who stands out. One time, he even showed up unexpectedly in a music video by the rapper Joey Badass. And Matt? Well, when I reached out to him, he told his wife about my photo and-
Matt McDonnell: She looked and she was blown away. She's like, "I followed him on Midnight's Instagram."
Jason Feifer: Midnight is their dog. Their dog who, by total coincidence, was already following me on Instagram.
Matt McDonnell: Midnight has an Instagram, yes. It wasn't my choice, but to each their own.
Jason Feifer: Oh, and Danny and Matt, they hung out a lot in college and then lost touch for a bit. But then one day-
Danny Nieves: Coincidentally, I ended up going over to a friend's house and he was sitting there, years later.
Jason Feifer: Years later. Because as it turns out, they had mutual friends. So, nine years ago, I sat across from two strangers to me, who I believed were strangers to each other, and who were sharing a brief, strange moment. In fact, I'd sat across from two new friends who are just beginning to discover how much they had in common. And then, in the coming years, their lives would intersect with mine. And the thing I did in secret, taking a photo of them, would eventually bring us together to talk about togetherness.
The world is small. And listen, I acknowledge I'm just one White guy speaking as best I can for my own experience, but my hope is that we continue to make our world smaller, to squeeze ourselves together, metaphorically at least, like we're on a New York City subway in a pre-pandemic world, until we're close and we're talking and we see how much we overlap, and we do it over and over again until someone looks up at us from across that subway and sees us and then looks back down. Because that person across the subway didn't see anything unusual at all and certainly nothing worth taking a photo of. All they saw Was people connecting.
And that's our episode. To see the photo that you just heard so much about, head on over to our website, jasonfeifer.com. Again, jasonfeifer.com. And seeing as this episode was about two guys connecting over things they loved, I figured I would share a letter from thousands of years ago from Mesopotamia that I think is about the same thing. But first, if you like this show, please subscribe, tell a friend, and give a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. And stay in touch. You can follow us on Twitter or Instagram at @heyfeifer. That's @heyfeifer, where we are constantly sharing the ill-conceived words of pessimists throughout history. You can also reach us by email at email@example.com.
A huge, huge thanks to Danny and Matt for so generously sharing their story with me. You can find more about Danny's work at breakfreshnyc.com. And oh, just for the fun of it, you could find Matt's dog on Instagram @MidnightofNewYork. Also, those cuneiform letters I cited, and that I will read one more from, came from a truly wonderful book called Letters from Mesopotamia by A Leo Oppenheim. Strong recommendation there. We'll also have links to all of this at our website, which again is jasonfeifer.com.
Build For Tomorrow is me and Louie Anslow. Sound editing this episode by Alec Ellis. Our webmaster is James Steward. Our theme music is by Casper Babypants. Learn more at babydancemusic.com. Build For Tomorrow is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts, and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation, and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea. If that's you, then get in touch with them. Proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science, and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit CKI.org. Again that's CKI.org.
All right. Finally, here is one more letter from a cuneiform clay tablet in Mesopotamia, featuring what I would like to think are two guys about to have a good time. All we have are the words written down, so it is up to you to interpret. And I apologize for any mispronunciations of the proper nouns here, but here we go. "Tell Ahooni Bella Noom sends the following message. May the god Shamash keep you in good health. Make ready for me the myrtle and the sweet smelling reads of which I spoke to you, as well as a boat for transporting wine to the city of Supar. Buy and bring along with you 10 silver shekels worth of wine, and join me here in Babylon sometime tomorrow." That's it. That's all we have. The rest is lost to history, but I hope those guys had a good time. All right. That's it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening to Build For Tomorrow. I am Jason Feifer and will see in the near future.
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