What my friend Hash Halper taught me: Spread love, the New York Romantic way.
“Where the Times Square Naked Cowboy is for the tourists, Hash [New York Romantic] was for the New Yorkers.”
A week ago, I heard Hesh (who went by Hash the past few years) Halper, known to many as New York Romantic, or the dude who draws hearts in chalk all over downtown Manhattan had died. My heart sank. It sank not because I was surprised. Unfortunately, I was not. I also wasn’t overcome with sadness at first, which confused me because Hash was, at one point, a good friend. I thought about the last time I saw Hash. I was in SoHo at the end of this past April, walking down Prince Street. It was an unseasonably warm day, and there he was, sitting on the stairs of the Moncler store sunbathing shirtless, showing off his lean muscular figure which he was always proud to say he got by only doing chin-ups, as if it was August, with a big smile on his face, chalk all over his hands, taking in the energy of New York City. I crossed the street, away from Hash, put my mask over half my mouth, and walked gingerly west to avoid him. I am not sure if he noticed.
I hope he did not. We texted in May, so I assume he did not. And that is what I kept thinking about. Maybe if he and I reconnected, he wouldn’t have thrown himself off the Brooklyn Bridge. Perhaps if I showed him more compassion this past year, which was difficult for everyone, he would still occupy neighborhoods with his whimsical and instagramable hearts. Maybe if I were more accepting of our differences last summer, he and I would be kicking it in Lt. Petrosino Square, having some La Esquina that I would purchase as we did in 2015 and 2016 and 2017. Maybe, maybe, maybe I kept thinking.
Over the past week, I have read every text conversation and every DM he sent me numerous times. I looked at every photo we had taken together. I read the New York Post article reporting on his death countless times. The Twitter and Reddit posts of people expressing their loss. The comments on his last Instagram post. And I concluded that I wanted to tell my honest Hash Halper story as a way to honor him, as a way to put some perspective into his situation, and also process this loss for myself.
I met an energetic Hash Halper on September 13, 2014 (around the time he started drawing hearts and the word “Love” on brick buildings) at Clic Gallery on Centre Street. He convinced me to purchase a pair of Air Jordan 1’s that were spray painted gold and turned into a clock by artist Clockwork Crocs, which is still hanging up in my apartment, although no longer as a functioning clock. He asked me to post a photo he took of me and my new art on my Instagram, which I did then and there, and we exchanged phone numbers as he told me he was living (or staying?) in my neighborhood of Chelsea. What followed was a steady stream of texts looking to hang out, locations where he is “working/chalking,” asking me to buy more art, and at times requests to borrow money or to stay on my couch. This was not unique. I was not uncommon. The more I got to know and hang out with Hash, I knew I was just one of many New Yorkers he was friendly with or trying to hustle to make it work in New York as he should. And I respected that.
Within a few conversations, I knew that not everything Hash would tell me would be completely truthful. I have a father who battles bipolar disorder. I have two friends, one from college, another post-college, who have mental health issues, and I was around to experience their first episodes. So I knew the signs, and because I did, I think that is why he and I became quick friends. I wasn’t scared or confused. I found this part of him an asset, and I don’t think he ever felt any judgment from me, at least not the first few years we knew one another. We had conversations early on about mental health that included his upbringing in an orthodox Jewish community in the Philadelphia area (at least that is what he told me) and our mutual distrust in institutions. But mostly, Hash talked about love and kindness. This intrigued me. Here is a guy who at the time was getting kicked out of his Chelsea living situation, spending nights on friend’s floors, maybe some nights on the streets, who had ups and downs in his mood, which was evident if you spent enough time with him, yet his message was so clear: spread love.
It was a message so easily digestible yet so complex to a city where love or showing love could be seen as a weakness that I was captivated.
For someone who was not “from” New York City, Hash quickly became a New Yorker. As someone from The City, I believe few exceptions of people who are considered New Yorkers were raised outside the city limits. I know, I know, I know many disagree, most of whom aren’t from NYC. Hash understood New York because he appreciated it and its people; its unique, unapologetic, eccentric people, and he became one of us. Where the Times Square Naked Cowboy is for the tourists, Hash was for the New Yorkers. He was someone who moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, finding a base. There was Kossar’s, Le Grainne Cafe, the BP gas station at Lafayette and Houston at the Peddler coffee cart, B Wood Shop, a cowboy boots store in Soho, Joe the Juice in SoHo, Thompson Alchemists, and of course Prince Street. When you stumbled on his calk hearts (and in the early days chalked brick “loves” and “peace”), you knew Hash was there, and you felt a sense of comfort.
I was not alone. Over 400 people commented on his last Instagram posts with similar messages, “love is seeing your hearts across New York City,” someone wrote. “You brought such joy to the neighborhood with your hearts,” another read. Someone else said, “You showed me so much of New York City, and I will never forget the impact you made on my life. You told me that being you is what gets you the farthest in life.” There are tons of messages just like this one, “I was walking one day and saw Hesh doing his thing creating a fresh piece. I wanted to stop and tell him that he’s making everyone happy. I sent a pic of the hearts to my grandmother, and she loved them. This simple gesture/art gave everyone so much joy. You touched the lives of some [sic] many people without ever knowing probably how many people you really made happy.” Another comment read, “Dam [sic] yo, it’s gonna be weird not seeing you writing on the floors in my hood and everyone not understanding and me having to explain your chalk stuff.”
Not everyone understood Hash. Over the years, numerous friends and associates would reach out to me asking if I knew “New York Romantic” or “the hearts’ guy” because they saw that he followed me on Instagram. They wanted to learn more. They wanted to make sure he was “okay.” They wanted to try to understand him better. In some ways, you either got him, or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, you probably never would. And truthfully, I don’t think you deserved to if you didn’t, despite what Hash would say, which would be to embrace those people still and show them love and kindness. Back in 2015, a college friend of mine reached out to me and said, “How do you know New York Romantic?” and proceeded to tell me that “he came into [her] life a lovely day like 3 weeks ago.” If you were open to him and got to know him, your days would be more lovely.
According to his 2018 interview with The New York Times (he was so proud of), Hash drew hearts “because he feels New York is losing its romance, with people holding phones instead of looking at each other.” At first, he used to say, including in that same NYT article, that he started drawing hearts because of a girl he was in love with, but I always thought that was too easy of an answer and lacked heart (no pun intended). To love something or someone, you need to know what love is by being loved yourself. So when Hash and I started hanging out, he talked a lot about “MSB.” After a while, I lost interest in this narrative. That’s when he started talking more and more about his mom and his sister. Two women in his life instilled in him what it means to love and the importance of spreading love. Not a day went by that he didn’t speak to his mom (which his mom has confirmed to me), and I believe that this is what kept him going, what kept him wanting to spread love and kindness.
His mom, Hana, posted this to her Instagram: “My daring, loving son with pure heart and soul wanted love, peace, kindness, and justice for everyone. Asher wrote this for his brother, “rest in peace, in power, in hearts, in love.
Hesh — the New York Romantic, had the biggest heart we ever knew. It breathed out of him, on the walls, the sidewalks, anywhere he could etch it. It was a treasure map all throughout SoHo, LES, the village, these chalk hearts that mirrored the one he wore on his sleeve cascading to the streets. As if to say, we walk these streets together. We are many hearts but can be one. Many hearts, yet but one soul. Hesh slept with a blue Care Bear Till he was 10. He was that carebear embodied, a lifeguard, a healer. We admired this unabashed vulnerability, how present he was in a moment. It didn’t matter if you were descended from Habsburg royalty, a celebrity A-lister, or struggling on the street — it was all the same to Hesh; you were a creature of infinite light and present possibility. You received equal care and attention. He’d give his last shirt off his back to shelter you. Hesh was a wonder force of no past, no future, just the beauty of now. You would witness him sitting on a hydrant, holding court on Price Street. He was both the Shakespearean fool full of wise saws and the King of black who learned them hard. Infinite energy radiated out of him, the corner of his grin and harlequin of devilish charm and angel concern. We are broken without you, Hesh. But your heart will remake us.
At one point, Hash posted to his Instagram a quote from Vicki Reese: “No matter what age you are, you always need your mom.”
I crossed Prince street on that warm April 2021 day because Hash and I had some differences that started during the early days of COVID. In March of 2020, when New York City was on Lockdown, I checked on Hash. I knew Lockdown would be difficult for him, someone who loved being on the streets around people. He devoted his life to spreading love and kindness to people passing by, but what happened when people stopped passing by? What happens to someone whose mission is the opposite of social distancing? I thought it was an opportunity for him. People are scared and alone, and they need to be reminded that love heals. In the months that followed, I got a sense that Hash was having a difficult time with how long Lockdown became. He was not happy with it. He did not like the mask mandate — telling me that masks spread COVID-19 (they do not). I challenged him but did not push it. He was entitled to his opinions. I wanted him to be safe but also wanted him to be himself.
I began running into Hash as protests started to erupt in the city following George Floyd’s murder. Hash, forgetting we texted a bunch in March, told me about the rough year he was having. How hard it was “living in the streets,” he said numerous times that “the streets are tough.” He told me that his mom would say to him each day that “life is a series of challenges,” to which I agreed. Hash understood the Black Lives Matter protests — I was attending every day from end of May to August. He would DM me or text me in response to stories I posted on Instagram. During this time, he would say, “reality is no one is all good or bad, lots of problems in the world and with technology they are being brought to light and with increased empathy there is more action and change”; “art has always been about conversation with universal languages and creating cultural events where all are welcome. I have views from my experiences and history that may differ with others, yet tolerance and peace is foremost.”; “I chalk to help families and the area around me increase empathy. We all have to be complimentary in the struggle for peace and justice.”
As we got closer and closer to the Presidential election, Hash’s tone changed, which made me uncomfortable — which I told him. He didn’t like some of the movements and slogans coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement, nor did he approve of some of the democratic presidential candidates. He saw both, at times, as being anti-semitic. And although some people out there may have retreated to some anti-semitic tropes, I did not feel the same as he did, which caused some tension. I respected what he said, but I spoke up when I disagreed, and I believe he appreciated it.
When I saw Hash in SoHo in April, I crossed the street because I didn’t want to have a conversation about Israel. I saw from his Instagram that he was very focused on the issues going on there, and he took it upon himself to defend Israel — which I admired but did not want to get into a debate. I am Jewish but do not practice it or any religion. I believe in Israel’s right to defend itself. Still, I also believe in a two-state solution (and Palestinian’s right to protect themselves) and felt at the time that the current Israeli government was too right-wing and destructive. BUT I also know that I do not know everything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I wasn’t educated in school to pick one side or the other. I figured at the time that eventually there will be tension/a possible war or conflict and then followed by a cease-fire and some peaceful times, and then I can hang with Hash. Unfortunately, and sadly, that did not happen.
As I said earlier, when I first heard about Hash, I was not surprised and not overwhelmed with sadness. I visualized him that night on June 11. I thought of him being sad at first but then at peace as he walked over the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan with his chalked up hands. I thought his last visual was of the city he loved. The city he became. And as he looked out at Manhattan, a smile came over his face. That same smile he would have when he saw me or the thousands of other New Yorkers he knew on the street. The smile of love. Of kindness. Of acceptance. I wasn’t sad because I felt he was at peace that he made his mark on our city, that he knew that he had a legacy and that many of us would not forget him.
When a close family member passed away early in 2015, Hash texted me, “energy transforms never dies.” Hash spent years on the streets of New York City spreading love and joy. He was always proud when anyone would post his hearts on Instagram because he saw it as a way to further kindness. One of the comments on his last Instagram post came from Rebecca, @beaniebanditblue, and it read, “If anyone wants to hit the street with chalk hearts in remembrance, let me know! I’m in the East Village, and I have chalk to share.”
Once this all settles in more, I will be out there trying to keep his mission alive, chalk hands and all. With so much division and so much hate in the world, we owe it to him, to each other, and to ourselves to spread love, the New York Romantic way.