By James Maher
Name: Ronald Rayford
Occupation: Actor, Writer
Location: 4th Street and Avenue A
Time: Monday, Nov. 13
I’m from Buffalo. I was living in Chicago when I was 23. I didn’t like it right then, so I said, hey, I’m looking for a job, I can find a job in New York. I started out in Brooklyn, around Nostrand Avenue, but I knew somebody in the neighborhood, and eventually I got an apartment on Avenue C and 10th Street. That was about 1967.
I got a job at a haberdashery, a tailor shop on 125th Street. I worked for him for awhile and I was going back and forth from there to the Lower East Side, down to Orchard Street to pick up the fabric. It was bigger then, much more stuff was going on back then.
There were some good spots and some bad spots, but as I look back on it there were a lot of bad spots. The area on Seventh Street was kind of rundown but so was 10th Street. My friend who encouraged me to come to New York died on 10th Street. Aww man, it was a bad scene.
Truth be told, I got into some drug situations for a time back then — I’ve got to tell the truth. Eventually I got busted with some drugs on me. I was in the Tombs — they were overcrowded. They were putting so many people in there. There was a riot while I was in there in 1969. They were rioting against the way they were treated. I was in there for about 90 days but then I got sentenced and they sent me up to Dannemora from there.
After that I got out. My mind was clear of the drugs. I started acting with Woodie King down here at the Henry Street Settlement, and they gave me a little money too. That was part of some program in the neighborhood.
Then I had a woman that I knew, she came down here to be with me and we had a child. From there, I started acting seriously in plays and stuff like that. I got into a play that Woodie and Joe Papp produced at Lincoln Center, so I got a break there. It was called "What the Wine-Sellers Buy." Then another break came in "Saturday Night Live," and I was on there for a little while. I was studying with the Strasberg institute, studying acting
Then I broke up with the wife and I went back to the drug thing like a fool. I stayed in that drug thing for a couple of decades. Then from there I had another son and that cleared my mind up even more. Since then, I’ve been pretty much on the straight and narrow.
People get a bad deal with the issue on drugs. In Norway, Denmark, and other countries, they stopped their war on drugs because war on drugs translates to a war on Black folks. Because of this war on drugs, people are incarcerated at a massive rate — it’s incredible. They are not helping the people at all, but now seeing that it’s moved into other communities other than this particular community, now it ain’t just junkies, dope dealers – they are opiate addicted. They put a whole new name on it, you dig? They knew that in the 1970s, Oliver North and others were bringing that stuff into communities all over this country, and they incarcerated all these people. How they could not see this stuff is insane? This is not a policy to help the people. It’s a genocidal policy on the people.
And now with the aid of Mr. Sessions and Mr. Trump, they want to reinstitute this policy that the previous president had tried to break down a little bit. It’s just another name for slavery, because it’s free labor, and it goes deeper than that, because with unpaid internships, that’s another form of slavery. Anytime you’re talking about free labor, you’re talking about slavery. It’s basically because the working class has collapsed, so something’s got to change.
These days I’m doing very little acting. I would like to do it when I can. I did a few things, something I started over at the Theatre for New City. And I’m doing a little writing now too. But now I would say my focus is on activism. I met some very interesting people, Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte, Amy Goodman, Van Jones, and Jacqui Lewis, who is head pastor of the Middle Collegiate Church on Seventh Street and Second Avenue.
Right now, what I’m doing is I am part of this group in the church called the Butterflies. They carry the food, and sometimes I help them make the food, put them in sandwich bags and lunch bags, and take them out to Tompkins Square Park and to Sara Roosevelt Park. That’s activism.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.