COAF Summer Soiree: In Conversation on the Roof of the Dream Hotel
M., my art dealer friend, called. He said, “Do you care about the children?”
It was late Monday evening. “I suppose it depends. What children?”
“The children of Armenia.”
“We need a writer,” he said. “You’re the guy. I want you to do your research.”
Thursday morning I picked up dry cleaning, bought cigarettes, bought coffee, and read through the afternoon.
Armenia has suffered. A 1988 earthquake, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and fighting between the Armenians of Artsakh and the Azerbaijanis, have all taken their toll on the country’s economy, education, and general health.
Conditions are especially taxing in the villages of rural Armenia.
Dr. Garo Armen founded COAF in 2000, hoping to improve the conditions at a school in the village of Karakert. The organization soon expanded its goals, building a model to reform the entire quality of life in the village, prioritizing education. Today, COAF’s model has been implemented in 10 villages.
I made a sandwich, had a beer, and looked out a window in my bedroom. A plane methodically passed over the Empire State Building, disappearing behind a cloud.
At seven I took a cab to the Dream Hotel. There was bad traffic so I got out around 6th avenue and walked. At the hotel, I took an elevator to the penthouse. The view arrested me. An open terrace stretches from end to end on the Northern side of the room, giving way to staggering metropolis.
At the open bar, I asked for a Tanqueray and tonic and found M.
He said, “Nice shirt.”
“I want you to meet Sam.”
Sam Armen is Dr. Garo Armen’s son. He was on the terrace with Alexander Teicher—a hedge fund analyst—who had just visited Armenia, and George, a friend from Greece.
Sam was saying, “The view of Ararat in Yerevan. You’re in a city, on either side of you are buildings, and in between is this giant, historic mountain. No matter what time of day, you’ll see it. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a cloud.”
M. said, “This is Kyle.”
Sam is intense, always holding eye contact. He’s also funny. He asked, “Where are you from?”
“A Greek, a Finn, and an Armenian. Cheers to the European Union!”
Sam suggested we walk to where the music was less oppressive. He was passionate about COAF and eager that I had a rich understanding of their cause.
“What you want to capture,” he said. “What you want to show, is these kids and their parents’ extraordinary commitment to learning and education.
“Have you heard the story of how we got started?”
“Only what’s on the website.”
“There’s more than that.”
He said, “My father hosted a town meeting in Karakert. Everybody in the town—including six year old children—came. My dad asked, ‘What do you want?’ He conducted it like a business meeting, naming priorities. He said, ‘I’ve noticed that you have no clean water. You have to walk very far to get water to drink, to bathe, to do anything. You have no heating. You have minimal hospitality. Health is very poor. What do you want?’
“Do you know what they said?”
“It was almost entirely unanimous: ‘We want education for our children.’ Think about what that means! That’s people saying, ‘I’m starving. I’m thirsty. I’m so hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. But despite that, more than anything else, I want my children to have an education.’
“That’s The Children of Armenia Fund. That’s the inception of the entire project.”
“That’s what you want to illustrate. That’s the story you should publish.”
We finished our drinks and thought, rich reds and oranges painting the skyline.
A cocktail waitress passed, carrying the hotel’s signature drink.
“Ask her the name of the drink,” Sam said.
She said, “a wet dream.”
Sam looked at me, smiling mischievously. We laughed.
Out on the terrace, having a cigarette, M. came over.
“Kyle, meet Stephen,” he said. “He has nothing to do with Armenia. Except he’s here.”
“I’ll be back with drinks.”
I shook hands with Stephen and we sat down outside on a couch. Behind glasses, his eyes are beady and pacing, but it works for him.
“What do you think of the party?” I asked.
“I like it. Great venue. Great cause. I like it.”
“What do you do?”
“I work in law. It’s where I make my money. But my passion is acting. We’re working on a script.”
M. brought drinks and left.
“My goal,” Stephen said, “is to accumulate enough wealth from the practice, and then act full time.”
“Financial security is important.”
“The starving artists I meet…They’re miserable.”
“The starving artist, I think, is oppressed by his economics and his work suffers.”
“His creativity is impaired.”
“Nobody cares about him. He has no money. Only the true artist can create something beautiful after this blow. The majority become mediocre.”
Dr. Garo Armen and the evening’s hosts—Patricia Field and Anna Condo—were making speeches.
The founder of COAF started with a joke. “The talk that I’m giving,” he began, “will last about 45 minutes.”
He smiled. Like Sam, Garo is confident and sincere.
“Education is a gift that no one can take away from you. No disaster, no theft, can take this away…What we do in Armenia is provide the right education for the youngsters and impart this gift of giving to them. And we’re seeing the results of this.
“We’re seeing these lovely children—on their own initiative—talk about human rights, about women’s rights, about children’s rights, about animal rights, and environmental issues without us having to teach them all of these different things. Once we impart the right values, we set the foundation for a wonderful community.”
Garo emphasized, “It’s not only giving money. It’s also giving love and respect.”
In the bathroom, I washed my hands. Sam appeared at the adjacent sink.
“Kyle,” he said. “Enjoying the party?”
“It’s a great turn out.”
We talked through the mirrors, holding eye contact.
“What you want to illustrate is that people from all different backgrounds are coming together for this. Tonight, 300 people are here. That’s 100 more than our last event.”
“Next time, there will be 100 more.”
The bathroom attendant handed us napkins. We thanked him.
“The excitement is organic,” I said. “COAF feels like a family.”
“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.”
We left the bathroom. M. was in the hallway.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “Kyle, the article?”
“How is it going to start?”
I was leaving. Sam said he would walk me out.
Near the elevator, he said, “I want you to understand the experience in the villages.”
“Imagine you walk into school and see bright colors and big, spacious rooms. You’re a child. Then, you walk down the corridor and see the rooms that haven’t been renovated yet. You start seeing brick, you start seeing pipe, you start seeing cracks. There’s no longer light. You’re anywhere between six and fifteen years old and you’re walking through that.”
“In the winter, the only source of heat is Persian Kerosene, which is terrible for you. We have stories of kids passing out. But imagine. When they wake up, the first thing they say is, ‘No, I missed school!’”
“It’s a totally different world,” I said.
“Exactly,” Sam said. “That’s what your article needs to show.”
I thanked Sam and left the party. I tried to hail an off duty cab before deciding it was nice out and it’d be better just to walk.
A few days after the soiree, I had drinks with M.. The weather was mild.
“How’s the article?” he said.
“Notes. An outline. I’m spending time thinking.”
“You know the painter, Gorky?”
“One Year the Milkweed.”
“Right. He came out of the Armenian Genocide. When he was sixteen, in 1920, he came to America. There’s a wildness and sincerity to his expressionist abstractions.”
“My favorite, though, is The Artist and his Mother. The painting is based on the only photo Gorky has of him and his mother. In the painting, Gorky’s eyes are unimaginably sad. It’s not like that in the photograph.”
“He paints the loss into a memory.”
“That’s why I care so much, I think, about COAF,” M. said. “We’re giving these kids a chance. Who knows what they’ll create.”
Outside on the avenue, the Empire State Building was lit up in blue.
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