Standing on the Roof of Antiquity

Robert Martin volunteered to paint the Bowery Mission, and this is what he wrote about the event. 


It was early Saturday morning…from low on the horizon, the bright sun used buildings to cast a thick shade over the littered sidewalks of the infamous street known simply as Bowery. I walked downstairs from my room on the fifth floor of Bowery Mission and watched a young woman tape a sign to the front door which read, “White Roof Volunteers-Upstairs Conference Room.” As dozens of volunteers poured into the conference room staging area, I met Loretta. She was our exuberant commander of logistics for the next three days. On the large dry-erase board, roof areas were carefully divided into sections, and individuals were assigned to various teams. This project was huge. Earlier in the week, when I was asked to “help some folks paint the roof on Saturday,” I had no idea my experience would evoke such a deep reflection on the human spirit and civic virtue as scholars of Western Civilization view it to be.


The heroic aspirations of White Roofs correspond to the elements and structure of Greek Comedy. Athenian drama was closely connected to the political and religious life of the state that sponsored it. In the setting of Tragedy, the social and political climates of a city seem to be quite stable…and then a sudden fall occurs. Tragedy can warn us about how the consequences of greed, pride, or injustice can lead the heroic man or woman to destruction. Comedy, on the other hand, begins within a long-entrenched condition of social oppression or popular discontent…until the comic hero (poneros) brings about a change or liberation. Comedy was crude, outspoken, and full of absurdity. It expressed themes of sex, the good old days, the nightmares of politics, the sadness of wartime, etc. The comic hero was typically an everyday citizen or group of citizens that had an elaborate plan to change the status quo. They took action. In Aristophanes’ Peace, the comic hero, elderly Trygaeus, is angry about the disruption of social harmony caused by the Athenian men being away at war with Sparta. The women are lonely, and there hasn’t been a festival or a marriage in years. Trygaeus recalls from a myth that a Dung Beetle can fly from earth to Olympus. So, he plans to pay Zeus a visit and demand that Peace be sent back to Athens. After a hilarious scene where two servants complain about being given the task of feeding stinky dung to the beetle, our hero saddles up and safely ascends to the realm of the gods. He prevails upon Zeus. Peace is sent back to earth. Trygaeus marries Mayfair, and a festival symbolizes the successful return to happy life.

Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza, (Founder of White Roofs) and a large group of NYC citizens have an elaborate plan to fight the sun. They heard in a myth that by painting a roof white, the sun’s heat can be diverted, thereby saving energy and striking a counterblow to the advance of Global Warming. People of all classes aspire to transform Gotham City into a sprawling ivory deflection shield…one roof at a time. Here at Bowery Mission, the determined heroes took up small arms…they fought with brooms, hoses, rollers, and brushes. Young students fought next to established professionals. Connected by a lofty purpose, all were transformed from a lifestyle previously insulated from the rigors of battle into seasoned warriors. White stains on skin and clothing became war paint and camouflage. As the photographer met Juan Carlos and I at the highest part of the Bowery Mission roof to take a picture, we spontaneously raised our spear length roller sticks above our heads and faced off at each other in a “Lord of the Rings” fight pose. Spirits were high! The roof, now an ocean of white, reflected the sun’s powerful rays directly into our eyes, threatening snow blindness. The plan was working! Intense glare symbolized the glory of our success.

Plato believed that, to escape the effects of corruption and false ideology, the best kind of city (kallipolis) needs to be governed by virtuous and wise philosophers. The virtue of Justice dictates that every person is significant and that we share responsibility for the city we live in. This concept was invented by the Greeks and became what Western Civilization has come to know as Civic Duty. Incidentally, the actual manual labor and outdoor rooftop setting of the White Roof operation participates in Plato’s first phase of education, the Gymnastic. The idea being that a person can’t learn the subsequent phases of Music and Philosophy correctly if the student hasn’t first thoroughly experienced the realities of nature and the physical world. At the very least, the White Roof work project invites the citizen to step out of his/her comfort zone of technology and noise and enter into a meditative experience.

Like layers of paint, a community project like White Roofs has many layers of significance. Significance occurs anytime our experience touches something universal. What was true about Beauty, Courage, or Civic Virtue in the time of Plato and Pericles is still true today.


Trygaeus and Juan Carlos have both set an example that people can do something about a long-standing problem. No matter how giant a problem may appear, the human spirit has the audacity to believe it can oppose it. So let the City give ear to the heroes of the past and to the warriors of the present. When you see something unpleasant (like a drunk homeless person begging for money), or something threatening (like Global Warming or Economic Downturn), don’t wait for someone else to take the initiative to handle it. Engage it! Take courage…and be the hero of your own drama.

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