I had the opportunity to take a few days off and choose a little vacation activity that was without compromise. For some a beach and a book does the trick. For others sweating and skiing might be a happy getaway. For me, walking and shooting is my meditation, so that’s what I did. This past weekend I lucked out on the gritty streets of Manhattan with a glorious 50 degree weekend in February. I walked and shot till I couldn’t take another step or store another pixel.
My recent preoccupation with rust had me more than a little distracted as the Big Apple, the center of the universe, the home of the best of the best and the worst of the worst… offered plenty of peeling old and worn among the appealing new beauty. So I landed at Kennedy, dropped the bags at the hotel and hit the street while there was a bit of overcast light in the sky.
My first stop was to the usual garbage that seems to endlessly overflow throughout the streets of New York City. I imagined a waiter at one of the many delightful eating establishments came to my photographic table and offer me the special: a plate of sooty black tar slush with a luscious piece of orange on the side.
What I saw was soft marbled mountains of sparkling ice set off by a spot of bright textured color. Something so atrocious to others was gorgeous to me.
On every street in Manhattan there are treasure chests filled with priceless jewels. Some refer to them as dumpsters. I found the most extraordinary rusty hooks with the bright white vinyl caps still intact.
Also in abundance on the $24 island of rock are loading docks. On every street that has a monument stretching to the sky there is also a gateway leading to its bowels below. In the right place at the right time, one get’s to blend cosmetic office building marble with corner guards leading to scars and scrapes. Among us rust hunters, this kind of visual combination is a rare find.
Years ago as a resident of the island and with a less adequate camera, I befriended all the Gargoyles, Lion Heads and Archimage I could find, seen on the tops of the skyscrapers. Returning to Manhattan this past weekend, I was happy to see frieze friends again, but now I was able to appreciate them more clearly and grasp the sharp essence of their protective image.
“Excuse me waiter… can you bring me a plate of rusty macaroni and if you could put out your cigarette in the corner… that would be lovely.” I stood and stared at this freckled nest of noodles and shot it from a dozen angles. Little puppy links hugging each other in a massive litter embrace. I imagined this one up on my wall at home about 6′ high and 8′ wide.
Down the street was the famous Post Office located across from Penn Station. Its massive row of columns on the front diminished the long iron gates along the side. In the center was a perfect square of iron against a sharply cut wood post. I marveled at the perfectly centered hole exactly in the middle, the precise placement of the washer and silver second washer nut and bolt emerged from the middle. My OCD soared as the perfectly straight and level nut needed no correction from my mental wrench.
I ducked into B&H Photo to blast myself with toys and knowledge and after I was complete and gushing. I relaunched onto the street, ready and loaded to shoot. Right outside the store was this dude standing like some kind of photo ghost. I imagined that he actually was there from another time and that was his spot for his spirit. For decades his essence has been standing there holding his old camera, appearing only to the oddest of photo buffs.
Me getting my rust on must have made me uniquely qualified to see him and just after I took the shot, I checked the image on the monitor found on the back of the camera and when I looked back over to where he was, he had turned into a pair of pigeons and flew away.
Wandering back to the east side I strolled through Penn Station. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to catch a guy picking his nose, another sleeping on an escalator and a cop on the way over to wake him up. I call this one, “Three Men in a Garden”.
A little deeper into the station I got lucky again to capture a squatting homeless man followed by a praying Hasidic. How does one describe the priceless thrill of mingling with grimy people and rustic texture? Manhattan for me is like being on the carnival ride or being onstage with all the characters who pose for photos in my path. Oddly in this frantic city, I feel completely relaxed, invisible and anonymous.
I’m not sure if the lure is the feeling of being there on the ride, among the characters I shoot or the feeling of not being anyone at all.
When I left Penn Station I walked into an ocean of yellow taxis where I saw a very small man in a fur hat, with the most orange beard carrying the brightest blue bag.
Then around the corner there was a giant and his girlfriend shopping.
Every once in a while when I wander and shoot, I get blessed with a welding shot. I don’t know… it’s just great to stumble upon a well protected steel worker making colorful sparks.
And then the glorious rust get’s in the way again. Bright blue crowd walls stacked on a thick rusty sheet of iron makes for some great compliments. Sneaking up on rusty iron doors to catch the bent metal amid the graffiti. Delicious peeling fire escapes, wonderfully assertive broken pipes, drippy diamonds of rusty dabs followed by swollen blemishes of rust oozing from fleshy concrete. Crescendo with corroded curves and protruding pipes in hollow holes followed by brilliant barbed wire against a bright blue sky… and with all that, you get the picture.
Despite the hunt for rust, one can’t ignore the melting ice exploding on silhouetted scaffolding in the sunlight; it looked like mist being born to me.
Walking through parks to get to the other side of town in search of that raunchy rust gave me more characters to shoot than anyone can ever dream up. The pigeon man is supposedly famous for his relationship with those flying rats, and on the other side of the park a concert was seducing frozen listeners worshiping the infrequent bit of sun in winter with classical music that actually drew tears.
Children danced in gold shoes while students celebrated in their best Hello Kitty Headbands. While all this was going on above ground, underneath, subway riders stole a snooze.
On the other side of the park was a plethora of perky poles and pipes riddled with ridiculous red rust on rails and rounds revealed through rocks.
When my oldest daughter was a little girl, she adored finding junk in the street and bring it home and turning it into some kind of jewelry or art. Some smashed up piece of rust that had been run over a million times and had finally ended its life against a curb was reborn in the hands of child who found beauty in its rough raw texture and corroded skin.
I too would admire her vision and could also see the unique beauty trying to come out of the decay. To most people it’s just junk. To creative visionaries it’s an orange flaky measure of time and endurance, boiling through once fresh smooth metal. I’ve always shot it when I saw it but never thought about sharing it. It’s like living with one’s own insanity; so we know it’s there, what’s the point of making a big thing about it.
Now that I contribute to this Rust Group on Facebook, I can use it as an excuse to hunt for images. Somewhat less random and metaphysical and a bit more of a sharp eye for what usually goes unnoticed. It all started early on a Saturday morning somewhere that metal usually collides with moisture; the Clearwater Marina.
While others ogled and gawked at yachts and sailboats, I stalked the dirty little borders and crannies of docks and slips.
I did my best to avoid all distractions but the granite colored wooly ropes used to tie up the big ships were too tempting to resist.
Then I got back on track and followed the clues to the next beautiful blight in sight.
Tired of the clanking lines on masts and screaming sea gulls, I hit the road to find the next legendary beach known to few. It was truly beautiful there but no rust in sight. Just gorgeous crystal clear water reflecting the magnificent blue sky. I knew I wouldn’t find any ferrous acne in this bountiful place so I hunted down another village of wet wealth.
Tarpon Springs has a little community where Greeks have been fishing for sponges for generations. What a juicy plethora of patina I found there in that wet heaven. Everything from rusty anchors to explosive reflections and flaky corners of corrosion were all on display for me to shoot and share.
Sometimes I wonder if there is a relationship between the color of the bright orange fire that the metal is born from and the similar color that the rusty metal blushes with at the end of its life.
When I was little, my mother used to buy these dessert cakes that would come in packs of two. Two Twinkies, two Ho-Hos, two Yodles, two Devil Dogs, two Suzy Q’s, two Ring Dings or the two hard frosted chocolate Cup Cakes with the dreamy white swirl on top of them. They always came in packs of two and she would say, “Now Barry, you can only have one.” I’ll admit that back then when I was young and chubby, that second one meant the difference between life and death to me.
Confounded by the curiosity of what would happen to that second dessert, I pondered about who the rule-makers were that placed such a heinous limit on my sweets consumption. Like a thief who knows no respectable or legal boundaries, who see’s what they want and feels that if they can take it, it should belong to them… I too could not see what barrier there was between me and that second dessert.
I’d watch my mother wrap that remaining Ho Ho, Yodle or Ring Ding in the open package with a rubber band stretched around the outside of the bent over cellophane wrapper, and feared it becoming all stale and crusty, before I could get at it later that night while everyone was asleep. In the morning we would all wake and my mother would reach for it on the highest shelf in the cupboard only to discover the second halves missing.
Back then, I used to get severely punished for disobeying the “Only One Allowed” rule, later to learn that the second one would have gone to my mother’s equally ravenous appetite or shared with my brother or just be around for a second day of indulgence rather than be devoured in a hysterical fit of creamy cake enthusiasm. To this day, I still have trouble with the, have one now so more can be had later philosophy…or just obeying any general rule that I don’t see the immediate benefit for.
So I joined this awesome photography Facebook group that I really enjoy. It focuses mostly on images of Rust and since I have always loved and captured the rough red bumpy stuff, I can now compare, learn and share with others who adore the ferocious ferrous virus. The problem is that they only allow me to post one photo per day.
The second day that I was a member of the group, I posted more than one photo in that day and they spanked me for it. I mysteriously ran around the house and ate every cookie in sight. Then I thought…“Hey wait a minute… I can post them all at once on my blog!”
So here you go. Have as many as you’d like.
A long time ago, in a place far, far away, I would adore dressing up my beautiful little daughters and taking them out on secret Saturday morning missions. I would spend my work week searching for special places to take them and creating almost unbearable excitement around ordinary destinations. “Where are we going today daddy?” they would say. And on frequent occasions I would reply, “today we’re going to the magic bench.”
Such joy I would take in dressing their little doll bodies with mismatched socks and layers of pink striped stretch pants under dazzling polka dot dresses with defiant colored tops safely wrapped within soft warm hoodies and gentle jackets. All around the city I had mapped out magic benches for us to drive to, hike to, walk to and on the way I would invent extraordinary stories about the magical powers bestowed on those that intentionally take a load off. By the time we would arrive at these special seats, the routine act of plopping down had been transformed to a spectacular adventure.
These days, we all often pass a meaningless bench or brick wall suitable for sitting or standing near for a smoke, and never realize the importance that street furniture plays in people’s lives. To some it’s a resting stop for a confidential call with high expression. For others it’s home, a bed and a meeting place for friends. And for others still, maybe a potential location for an engagement where the question will be popped on one knee. Even less thought about is how much life actually happens while just sitting. Almost anyone can turn a cherished chair into something extraordinary.
Can you imagine? The first thing we teach the extension of ourselves, our prize possessions, our pups, is to sit! Be it in a bag or a baby stroller, holding on haunches becomes their preferred mode of travel.
More traditionally, the stroller still caters to seated babies unless a plush parent’s arm is handy.
Some seniors make hats out of balloons so when they do their sitting they can feel light-headed.
Resourceful resters can turn any curb into a seat. And who among us ever resisted the joy of learning to ride two wheels while seated? Regardless of age or style, if we’re still able to steer, we do.
Some people can no longer balance on two wheels and they conduct their sitting on three or four wheels.
For some, the throne that one rocks and rolls on, is so worshiped that they must capture it for the family photo album.
And for others still… it’s not enough, to just rumble one’s rump or breeze through the wind while eating bugs at high speeds, we need to straddle the lightening and exhaust the thunder louder than any other.
Soon enough the push’n on a cushion becomes so natural that almost any seat will feel like home.
In our honored leather seat biker culture, taking a stand on what colors you wear or who belongs to who, commands respect and sets the rules.
Those with the largest seating area become hip to the law. This lovely lady is signing a petition to legalize the use of a natural herb that makes just sitting around at home more fun than anyone can ever imagine.
At the end of this fanny festival my camera was loaded with images and my mind was throbbing with thought. I turned the corner where my car was parked and saw a young dad sitting on a bench with his son. I had one more shot left in the camera and tried to capture the super powers from the magic bench they were on.
After I wrote this blog I learned of a club that helps abused children to restore their courage, and wanted to share it.
I think this has always been my problem. Do I take one marshmallow now or wait a while and receive two marshmallows later? What if later doesn’t come and I’ve missed my shot at the one marshmallow! I believe my career has suffered because sometimes, in the heat of a serious business meeting, when important discussions are being had, about creative ideas costing tens of millions of dollars, I might think of a clever pun, at that precise moment.
Do I dare speak it and risk eroding a meeting with focused colleagues discussing large risks or do I keep that pun to myself and lose the moment? “One shot”, I think… it could be the best pun I’ve ever made! And before I can pull it back into my mouth and avoid suicide by my peers, it has left my lips and belly-flopped on the meeting table. The lowest form of humor is out in the open, for the members of the board to groan at and use to plot my demise.
A compulsive disorder? Perhaps. Divine intervention maybe? I don’t know; it’s just who I am. Anyway, this past Saturday was no different. I had gotten up and out early that morning, in search of adventure and mystery, and had absolutely no idea where I’d find it. I knew north was no good, nor east or west… so south it was.
I drove down the usual highway toward the greatest potential for serendipity, when I got this idea to get off at an exit, that I never would have a reason to take. “One Shot”, I thought… and checked my rear view and at the last possible moment, I changed lanes and got off. I drove down this virgin road and passed a bunch of pets getting blessed in the parking lot of the local church.
Further down the road, I passed a motorcycle club convening at yet another church parking lot, in preparation for a rumbling ride. Before long I came to a major intersection and turned right. Drove a little further and noticed an old neighborhood across the street sitting in the shade of very old Cyprus and Palm trees. The sign said, “No Exit” and in I went. I drove around and saw some lovely old homes but a bigger yawn detour I could not have found.
As I came back out of the old neighborhood and saw no cars coming from the left… I looked to the right and saw an odd little sign that said, “Tampa BMX Next Left”. Had I not turned into that sleepy street, I wouldn’t have seen that little sign stuck into the grass near that corner. “This was my shot”, I thought… “maybe I’d find some good pictures at this thing.”
A quick right and a quick left and I found myself in a whole other world.
Strange people everywhere, taking their shot at BMX. Little kids, parents, teams, sponsored groups, they were all there. All around me were people not thinking things through. Not thinking whether they felt like doing this or that… they were just doing it. I caught this little bat boy conceiving of his strategy on how to attack his green ice pop.
Elsewhere, a dad was cutting his little girl loose on a deadly hill. I imagined he was whispering in her ear, “Take it, take the shot, don’t be scared, it may never come again. Just do it.” I too did it… I took the shot.
On the other side of the track was an odd fellow in blue. I stared at him and he at me. I thought… “what an odd paint brush beard. Take it! Take the shot!” I raised my camera and took the shot. I got the feeling he didn’t like having the camera put in his face.
All around me were little mohawk helmet wearing people driven by fearless pure impulse.
Back in the corner of the event where no one else would go but me looking for the unexpected, a BMX Biker Babe and a Gangsta wannabe were whispering real close in their private corner. I heard his thoughts, “take it… take the shot.” He grabbed her and kissed her.
I heard her thoughts too. “He doesn’t ride, my parents can’t stand him, but I feel something for him. I’m going to do it. I’m going to take the shot. If he turns out to be a loser, I’ll kick his ass and then kick him to the curb.”
All around the event were people taking their shot. Babies taking the hill at full speed. When did we lose it? When did lazy caution sneak in and steal our passion for living? When did the punishment of poor nutrition become the choice over loving ourselves? When did we stop taking our shot?
The little boy has broken most of his bones before he turned ten. Nothing scares him and if he isn’t going fast and taking risks he might as well be dead. He see’s a pretty girl by the side line. He is completely unable to fear rejection; what he fears is not taking it… not taking the shot. So he walks right up to her and starts flirting. Full blown confidence and goofy expression gets the girl every time.
At four years old she has a mind of her own. Self doubt would never even enter her magical world. To her there’s only moods and actions. She wanted to wear the pink helmet, with the red star sweater and her cranberry tutu.
While others suffer on two wheels, a strange dude rolls out among the crowd on a green unicycle. “I’ll show them… all I need is one wheel. Take it… take the shot.”
Babies standing out in the crowd. “Take it. Take the shot.”
A protective father pushes his precious daughter’s head into a helmet. She squints as I pass. Take the shot Barry. Take the damn shot.
It was time to go. I had seen enough of this strange world where families all jump in behind the passion of the children. Oddly, as I got close to my car, I saw a woman putting on a pair of boxing gloves. I followed her for a while and then watched her enter the ring with her son. I heard her yell to him. “G’head, take your best shot pussy.” Then I watched him run for his life.
Exhausted from visiting this world where little kids ride like daredevils, I meandered home deep in thought. Taking more roads that normally I would never take. Venturing deep into strange places in search of strange sights. And amazingly, I wandered around this curve in the road and out of the corner of my eye, saw this girl flipping a giant tire in the front lot of a building.
I couldn’t believe what I had seen and drove around the block to get a better look. And sure enough there she was flipping that gigantic tire over and over like a football player or a marine in training. This pretty girl dug into that tire and flipped it again and again. I stood there and thought… “this is none of my business. I don’t even know where I am or who she is. But this, is something you just don’t see every day. Do I dare risk getting a picture of it?” And then I thought… “take it… take the shot you pussy.”
I ran to the back of my car and opened the trunk. As quickly as I could, I grabbed the camera and ran back. By the time I had gotten there she was done flipping the tire and started pummeling it with a huge sledge-hammer. I grabbed what shots I could but it wasn’t much by then. I felt bad for not moving fast enough and missing out on the moment.
Apparently I had discovered the Elite Strength and Conditioning facility deep in the heart of Tampa. In fear for my life I made friends with the owner and the woman with the big sledge-hammer. I thanked them for letting me take the shot and I left so they too could close up the gym and go home.
As they closed the door, something called “The Muscle Board” was uncovered from behind the door, and it had a very powerful message on it, that made me glad I frequently take risks because I don’t want to miss out on anything.
The Jews have a custom. Each Passover they invite strangers into their home, to come sit at the Passover Seder table and hear the story of how the Jews were slaves in Egypt 6,000 years ago, built the pyramids and were led to freedom thanks to the plagues brought forth on the Pharaoh. Most guests show up at this table as a couple. Sometimes a well-behaved married couple. Sometimes a gay couple. Sometimes a disabled couple or occasionally an individual person appears doing their best to not look spooked or lonely. Someday I’d like to invite a homeless person in to our Seder Table for dinner.
Though I could stretch a connection of Passover to The Last Supper attended by Jesus and the anticipation of his birthday this coming week, which some how translates to all of us spending all our money on gifts for each other. Or I could become slightly messianic myself, and suggest how me and Jesus are a lot alike, attending similar Passover Seders and always talking to strangers. We both prefer to walk barefoot and over the course of time there have been many neighbors that thy’n have loved… and many, not so much.
However, this is not a story about Passover, nor is it one really about Jesus; though that would be timely. This is more a story about what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land. What it’s like to be invited in as a guest by those unknown to us and to participate in other’s traditions and celebration. All respect to common ground, this is a tale about being anonymous among others not known to me; gathered as new friends but not familiars or family. For one night, we were all the same, setting out on an adventure to a far away land in search of a prize.
It all started late this past Saturday afternoon; the last weekend before Christmas. I was invited to join some new friends, out on their boat and take pictures of them and their gang, as they competed for best decorated boat in the Treasure Island Boat Parade. Ever notice how nice some people are to complete strangers? No interpretations of perceived value, just equal humans with equal humans, eating, drinking, celebrating and floating on a boat.
I arrived early to see what kind of people were around and to just generally warm up my camera for what I hoped would be yet another departure from the normal. Once the car was parked, I patrolled the local beach for odd and different.
Near this beach was a boardwalk catering to tourists and I walked among these strangers in this land. Dozens of boats advertising a swim with the Dolphins or a once-in-a-lifetime experience in parasailing, but for the most part just many bars and restaurants selling seafood. There were also no shortage of gift shops selling sea-side souvenirs, t-shirts and salt water taffy. I wondered if any of the people I would meet later in the day, worked at any of these places.
Trying to look for the more artistic among the routine, I walked beneath a drawbridge as it opened and could barely see the full lift through the split between the two roads. I thought barely for a moment about the metaphor of crossing a bridge between who I knew and who I was about to meet. I thought about how a drawbridge works, just letting unidentified boats through just because they toot their horn.
And under the bridge, close to the beach, the water crashed up on the shore and twinkled at me. Once the dazzle wore off from the hypnotic sparkle, I checked the time on my phone and realized I had better get going.
I drove over to the party boat, got my camera ready and began the process of meeting complete strangers and putting my life in their hands, as we filled the boat with beer, wine and fried chicken. Soon the other guests arrived in their best Santa Suits. Almost all these folks knew each other but I didn’t know any of them and they knew nothing about me.
In the first place I’m terrible about remembering names. I’m the guy at the black jack table who looks at his cards every two seconds because he can’t remember two numbers and two suits. And here we all are with these sweet Santa girls arriving with their fellas and I couldn’t for the life of me absorb a single name.
I could however retain fragments of the stories overheard. The guy who invited me aboard to shoot was mentioned as someone who did websites or Facebook pages; but I didn’t ask further. The older gentleman who arrived wearing an elf’s hat was a boss. I didn’t know if he was the boss of the mob, the boss of the kitchen, bar or the boss of the whole restaurant. I guessed bar, because of some of the footwear worn by the Santa Sisters and stray words grabbed from disjointed discussions of past and open bartender jobs… but just fractured words here and there pertaining to interviews, bosses and customers.
Everyone on the boat was so amazingly nice to me as I hid behind the camera shooting away at all the merry that would go around. Oddly, they all loved having their pictures taken and I loved shooting them; we were all there doing what we wanted to do as the boat departed down the canal.
The sun started to set as I grabbed what I could from its seductive light. Stories overheard included one woman’s history as a model in the fitness industry. Another woman boarded the boat with a new boyfriend that she was really excited about. At the end of the evening, this new couple would quarrel, because she drank too much and he felt she was giving too much attention to others and not enough to him.
Complete strangers with completely familiar stories and drama. I could see pieces of me everywhere in the passengers aboard the boat whom I’ve never met before.
And then there was this parrot. Can’t be a pirate on a Christmas Cruise without a parrot. This was the coolest parrot I’d ever seen. Just hanging on the yardarm eager to stand on the shoulder of all that would take him. As the evening grew darker the red and green Christmas lights hanging all over the boat got brighter, he stared at me and I at him. His name, I remembered… it was Spike.
As the evening wore on, the passengers got more and more relaxed. More and more altered and more and more intoxicated. No mean drunks on this boat… just a lot of smiles and hugging. And as the hugging became more frequent more stories leaked out about who used to hug who and who used to date who. Meantime, I just kept snapping away.
The boat continued on to the place where all the boats would be judged. Screaming girls in Santa Suits waved at onlookers from the shores. Music blared through large speakers hung on the mast. Drunk DJ’s grabbed the mike, “Let’s hear a round of applause for Sandy Beach” he would say, and the folks standing on their home docks waved and applauded. I didn’t know if one of the girls name’s was Sandy Beach or if we all living in the tropics naturally applauded the sandy beach.
In my imagination I got a twinge of stripper club intuition as the announcer on the boat seemed a little too well versed at calling attention to the girls up on the deck. Regardless, I was the grateful silent stranger snapping away, as we magically moved through the water. It occurred to me that someone must be driving the boat who wasn’t in a Santa Suit or intoxicated and that’s when I met the captain.
Lots of logistics involved with driving a boat through dark waters, watching out for other drunk drivers in boats and navigating tight waterways, much less spinning in circles in front of the line of judges who would deem your dressed up boat as the winner of the light parade.
I went back up on the top deck and thought about phrases like “walking the plank” or ” hard to starboard” but mostly wanted to see if I could get another shot of that damn bird.
As the Christmas Cruise drew to a close, we watched as Spike performed one of his famous tricks, which was to pull a woman’s blouse away from her bra. I wondered who would teach a bird a trick like that… much less let a bird practice on her. It really was a neat trick and I had a really great time with these folks. They were welcoming and kind and full of fun and great to photograph.
When I first got on board the boat I was a little suspect as I knew nothing about the passengers I would be sailing with. I never thought for a second that they might be wondering about me and if I was someone to be concerned with. Then I started thinking about how kind we all are with complete strangers. I started thinking about that Passover Seder table and how we generously welcome our home to strangers not even thinking twice about the threats that come with inviting a stranger in.
I started thinking about how kind the Christmas Cruisers were to me and how not kind, most of us are, to not strangers. How we might treat members of our own family who we’ve known our whole life, coldly and without courtesy or respect. I started thinking about how people will be getting together for the Christmas Holiday and might be dreading seeing this one or that one while breeding in the contempt of one’s familiars.
I wondered if families and loved ones around the world could forgive the conflicts carried from their past and assemble over the holidays, like complete strangers, how they would all behave. Can you imagine introducing yourself to someone you’ve known your whole life as if you are meeting them for the first time? Now that truly would be a Christmas Miracle.
I couldn’t find the metaphysical thread to grab this weekend. I followed the signs and they all said, “Yard Sale“. I guess ’tis the season for gift giving which is the zen of gift making or buying which means the season when everyone sells all their stuff. Department stores open day and night and when you drive around on a weekend every corner has a sign that says “Yard Sale”.
Such a dilemma. I want to see what I need to see. I want the world to perform for me and deliver what I want when I want it and at my taste level. I don’t want to dig through other people’s buried crap to find what I need. Then I remember to let go and be apart of it all and appreciate what gets delivered. Sometimes being at one place with seemingly no significance to ourselves, puts us on a larger path of greater necessary significance to someone else, not immediately obvious to us.
Every store had a sale and every corner had a sign on it that pulled cars in from every direction for miles around. Sometimes it’s hard to make sense or see purpose in endless wandering that drags us around each day to places we think we shouldn’t be at; but maybe we’re all going somewhere important after all.
Maybe folks gather their wares to sell, to desperately raise funds to buy gifts for loved ones or maybe there is no hidden significance and some people just love to rummage through other people’s junk for buried treasure. I’m no different I suppose. Swimming through throngs of people everywhere and anywhere in search of an image taken for granted that will be my magic capture.
While some look in obvious directions, I hunt for picture and story gold where most others do not see. Sure, I admit I have a bit of an ankle fetish and love the way a woman’s calf tapers into a thin sculpted ankle. Sure, I’m often caught staring at stranger’s ankles. And sometimes I get surprised by what I see.
My eyes were open now and I could feel the surge of something magical happening, just didn’t know what. Wandering through a flea market, I came across a very nice woman who had her head crushed and her brain-damaged in a horrible accident. Despite the disfigurement to her face, skin and forehead, she still remained attractive.
Her accident did leave her with a strange obsession for Muscadine Grapes. Apparently, were it not for the healing properties of these grapes, her accident would have left her in a horrible state. She went on and on about how these grapes cure all types of cancer, which reminded me of a conversation I had with someone else about the healing properties of baking soda; apparently this too may cure cancer.
I like wandering around and listening to what people believe in. I thought that if grapes and baking soda could cure cancer, certainly another fruit or baking ingredient must be able to cure swollen ankles.
The next day I found myself on the beach. One boring picture after another of people from all walks of life.
Always the same, the affluent with their beautiful well-earned homes on the shore along the less fortunate sharing a meal with like-wise starving birds.
I watched as the bright sun removed the faces and bodies of the sunbathers leaving only dark shadows bending in worship to the tide.
Discouraged by my perverse beach grabs of squinting half-naked strangers on blankets, towels and in folding chairs… I proceeded to leave the dull dunes.
At that particular moment in time and in that odd place where I had parked my car, a new bather entered the beach. Hard to see in the distance and the bright sun, she looked like a strange blonde in a black dress, wearing a big sun hat while carrying the requisite beach bags. Like a desert mirage, I couldn’t see what was coming for sure, so I just raised my camera and started shooting her as she got closer.
She came right up to me as I shot and I immediately saw that she was not a she at all, but a fully blown, heavily adorned, real live pirate! His name was Scott and apparently he drove to this obscure north Clearwater Beach all the way from Orlando. He was praying the whole drive over, that there would be a photographer on the beach that could take head shots of him. Apparently he was auditioning for the lead pirate role in the next big Disney movie and he needed some great photos to bring in with him to his audition.
Astounded by the discovery of my purpose at this moment, I snapped a few of the swashbuckler. In my mind I smiled and thought of the Dreaded Pirate Roberts and all my favorite scenes in the move The Princess Bride. As I shot him, I asked if he had a sword and he told me of his mighty blade left at home, that came all the way from somewhere in the South Pacific.
He thanked me, thanked the Lord of course and I gave him my business card and we both went our separate ways.
After I left the beach, I made one more stop at an Art and Craft Sale that I found at a waterfront town on the way home. I grabbed this one shot of the strange Chinese Crested… not noticing at first that someone had painted its toe nails red.
This last shot… also at the Art and Craft Show, I remember catching the woman mid-yawn as I took it. I had to shoot it quickly because just watching her yawn made me yawn. As a matter of fact, I can’t even look at this picture now without yawning. Can you?
A few months ago, I committed a crime. Next to the chair I sit in to write, rests a little gray cube shaped ottoman. On top of the cube is a square black tray and in the tray mixed among various old napkins, a coffee cup and the TV remote controls, is a tiny little white dish. It’s a little butter dish that I stole from an infamous restaurant in Ybor City. Other than for its outstanding food, this establishment is most well-known for hosting the criminal elite of Tampa since 1905; who individually and as a group, committed far worse crimes than my humble lift.
This harmless theft of the butter dish from the restaurant table, pales in comparison to a level of organized crime that was rampant in the late 40s and early 50s throughout Florida, especially in Ybor City. One night, in the early 1950′s, just prior to the Thanksgiving Holiday, one of the most notorious gangsters this country has ever known, knocked on the door of a little shack off a side street located within, the Cigar Capital of the World.
As the rain finished tapping on the tin roof of this humble workers home, the crime boss waited and a beautiful young lady in her 20s named Delia answered. He wanted to be sure that everything was all set for the Bolita Drawing that was to occur later that night. This was the equivalent to the modern-day numbers racket or illegal lottery of the day. Delia nodded and the gangster left her home and drifted back into the shadows. She closed the door and resumed her preparation for a fund-raiser she would be dancing at later that evening at a local club.
During the day she, like many others in her world, worked at the cigar factories. Delia was a cigar bander and would soon fall in love with one of the men she worked with, who was a cigar maker. He managed to earn a little extra in the evenings, betting on his prize rooster at the cock fights. The two cigar workers would marry, have two sons a daughter and launch a dynasty that followed them. But on this night, she had to rush out to the club where a random photograph was taken of the dancing volunteers crowded around a famous actor named Edward Horton, who also donated his time to the charitable event.
Delia stood just to the left of the famous actor and next to one of her best girlfriends. She rested her hand on the shoulder of another close friend sporting a very tiny mustache, as he sat posed in front of Mr. Horton. And this picture will be passed down through the generations along with stories of gangsters, close calls and good times in the old neighborhood. Later that night, more photographs were taken including candid shots of the dancers smoking those same cigars that they rolled and banded during the day.
Flash forward to 2013, I’m up the street from that same neighborhood, in downtown Tampa, the weekend before Thanksgiving. The shadowy figures of the past have been replaced with huge office buildings casting shadows on empty weekend parking lots filled with vendors on a Sunday morning. I had just dropped off my daughter departing from the Tampa airport and had to kill a few hours before returning to the airport to retrieve new arriving guests flying in for the holidays.
No gangsters or famous actors here today, just the dogs unnaturally adored by their owners and the view of a wannabe famous mascot promoting the local hockey team standing in front of a strolling rubenesque woman poured into a striped dress too tight to be seen in public.
Round and round I walked, looking for thrilling reveals and spontaneous moments to capture. All I could find was even more full-figured women dressed in bright yellow t-shirts offering to squeeze large lemons into lemonade and smiling college students working their way through school by selling Whoopie Pies. I decided to move on from the dull and delicious to find adventure in downtown Tampa on a Sunday afternoon.
It was surprisingly busy up and down the side streets. Workers were caulking cracks in parking garages while others painted flag poles at great heights.
Groping for spectacular images I had to settle for strange and bizarre decals unusually mounted to the backs of cross walk signs naturally placed beyond reach. I pondered the possibility of hi-tech drug dealers and pimps marking their territory with their hi-res branded images printed on adhesive backed stickers purchased at Kinko’s copy centers.
Defeated, cold and tired I decided to take in a movie at the historic Tampa Theater. Continuing to scrape the surface of the obvious, I grabbed frozen females in need of elbow grease and young dramatic boys fixated on flutes.
Suddenly the beautiful sound of music filled the air as the stage floor opened up at this old theater pushing through an old man on an old organ. I climbed up to the balcony to get another shot from a different perspective. Soon the entertainment ended, the floor of the stage opened up again and swallowed the musician and his instrument while I settled in up there to watch the movie of the day.
Hours passed, the movie ended and the weather changed from tropical windy to dark and blustery. I left the theater in search of adventure once again and was drawn to mischievous nymphs running through crops of tilted blown fountain stalks. Playing with my camera to adjust the light and speed, another odd traveler rode their bicycle through my field of wet white weeds. It could have been the mist from the spraying sprigs or a drizzle may have started to fall, either way I was compelled to seek shelter.
Frustrated, searching and starving for image and story… I looked up to see the Florida Museum of Photographic Art in the distance. I can’t stand photo galleries. The tension between the thought of how my pictures should be on those walls and the envy toward those people who are actually exhibiting… is excruciating and unbearable. And like a moth to the flame I’m drawn in to allow myself to be pulled by the continuous caustic conflict.
I entered the luring museum and rode the elevator up to the second floor where the gallery was located. The elevator doors opened in front of a desk where a thin, artsy man sat, taking money and repeating the pitch about the various exhibits going on. A tall athletic man and an exotic woman stood in front of me at the desk, making their donation to enter the exhibit. I thought they were a couple till the woman proudly pointed and declared, “ You see that woman over there in the exhibit poster? That’s our mom! She’s the pretty one in the middle smoking the cigar.”
That’s when it all made sense to me. My purpose for being there at that moment. To connect time and be a part of a special story. A chain of events that ended with me being at a museum at that exact moment, behind a brother and sister. I’m now a part of tale that began long ago with a mother who banded cigars and a father who made them.
Who knows…maybe in 60 years when I’m long gone and forgotten, this picture of a woman standing in front of a poster will show up in some creative person’s futuristic writing, telling a story about a frustrated photographer who was known for stealing butter dishes and how he wandered through the streets of Tampa long ago.
At my current assignment there is a wandering Chaplain. He has no office, no financial objectives to meet, no ROI; he just wanders the workplace in the early morning and late afternoon hours looking for souls to heal. He listens confidentially and his mission is to strengthen the spirit of the staff to enable them to remain engaged and stay productive.
It’s usually around 6 or 6:30 pm when he wanders into my office. The rest of the staff is long gone and I’m still deep into the fine detail of making things form or function better. He enters quietly and unassuming, always with a big greeting and no expectation of delivering or receiving any giant revelation. Inevitably an epiphany is discovered by our conversation that moves us both forward with awe, then afterwards he wanders off… back to his omnipotent no place in particular.
Last week he wandered into my office and we got talking about relationships and conflicts and how most offense is felt by the one who perceives themselves as smaller. The smaller one or the one needing the most, is not getting what they want from the other and this is the source of conflict. The perceived offender does not do or say what the smaller thinks they should and conflict ensues.
The wandering Chaplain said, “Look to yourself for what is missing in you. Look to what is incomplete, the insecurities and the need and want you have to be heard or seen differently and you will understand the source of conflict.” Then he continued with the point of it all… “Does the huge battleship get upset when the little dinghy bumps into it? See yourself as the bigger one, forgive the transgressions of others with grace and focus on the scale of all you are and all you have, without need to be irritated by something so much smaller than yourself.”
That’s when I remembered that I had all these pictures still left in my camera from a couple of weeks ago. I became the big ship after that talk and went looking for that image that I forgot I had; a ship so huge that even a small building is dwarfed in comparison.
Even the metaphor of the high security around the huge beast, made it impossible for me to get close enough to present any photographic threat. So I was forced to steal odd layers, glimpses and collages… snaps of shapes and textures from a distance.
Then I continued my own exploration of the shipyard, looking for that which is present for all to see but is easily missed by those not looking to collect wonder.
Not satisfied with the few captures I had left in the camera… I went out quickly and tried to get something juicy at a nearby carnival sponsored by a local church. Just something more to whet my visual whistle… sort of like a little something sweet after a savory meal. That’s were I was able to grab a few images of those who make their living convincing people that they could win if they threw darts.
As I wandered through the carnival filled with the saddest and sorriest of sights, quenching their massive needs with fried dough, popcorn and sno-cones… I came upon a parishioner briskly studying the bible as he highlighted phrases, psalms and passages.
It reminded me again, of my talk with the wandering Chaplain. The idea of remembering all that has gone into each of our own individual lives, that more than qualifies us to be the big ships we are. Just then, three older ladies came walking at me. They were singing and dancing as they marched in step.
It would be so easy for them to choose to see the loss of dignity, strength and purpose that the stereotype of age sometimes deceptively displays. These ladies however chose to see themselves as big ole battle ships, navigating the straits through carnival booths designed to pitch the temptation to win, in exchange for the hard-earned fruit of labor. These ladies had no need to win anything; they were already winners and walked on by.
I proceeded to leave the church’s fund-raiser event and had to pause at the cluster of tiny patrolmen standing in front of the giant beaded lady. This too reminded me that the scale of authority is only what we give it.
And then I passed the ultimate puddle. It was the Shark Attack booth. I had no idea how to play but was attracted to the message behind its invitation. “Fish till you win” and “… prize every time…get medium… get large…”.
As I proof read this little story, I became aware for the first time that it started out with a story about a Carnival Cruise liner and ended with me cruising through a carnival. I guess life is shockingly connected like that sometimes.
Wandering through Tampa, bright and early on a Sunday morning, served up a variety of odd characters, in odd places doing odd things. While the rest of the world was home basking in the comfort of the Sunday paper with coffee, the roar and drone of a football game or the sweaty hope of a successful do-it-yourself home repair project… I was out wandering.
A funny collection of ladies all dressed in white, were in the midst of posing for their photographer friend dressed in purple. I stumbled upon them first from a distance and then as I got closer they all stopped and watched me walk even closer. Then I raised my camera and they all broke into a pose. It was the oddest thing and the coolest at the same time.
It was as if they were all thinking that someday they would be famous and this picture would really be worth something. Then I walked away with a most excellent picture of them; them not knowing who I was and I not knowing who they were, much less who they might become.
My journey continued as I walked underneath a building made of dots. As I stood aimed at the center of its corner, I wondered if the building was pushing out or pushing in. Unsure I captured the corner of the building as a metaphor of the various ways many people can see the same thing in different ways. Each of us positive we are right in what we see and yet, we each see something equally correct and completely different.
I found an abandoned train track going across a trellis. I ventured out across the bridge going nowhere in search of something that had destiny. In the middle of the bridge was a twisted metal rod holding down a railroad tie that no train would ever be on again. A giant winding twist of steel holding two massive bolts into a thick block of weathered wood for absolutely no reason and no purpose.
At one time such a grip might have been necessary, but now it’s just a useless reminder of a long ago extraordinary power still tightly wound, without recent purpose while posing on display. What things we hang onto as if our life depends on it, that are no longer relevant to the here and now.
I watched a couple taking dozens of selfies. A joyous reminder of the beginning; perfect moments made blissful before time reveals all the truth about one another. Precious ignorant moments filled with possibility and hope, feeding the eternal wish that the other actually is as they are seen. Delicious infatuation; may time slow to a halt and stave off the knowledge that comes from experience.
Friends meet at a cafe table. One looks at the other and holds his tongue. He will not tell his friend how closely he resembles the dog he holds.
A homeless woman spins dried reeds into worthless flowers offered in exchange for charitable handouts by those walking past.
Mindless wandering and aimless drift pulls me into a secret convention. A fantasy world created by little known computer gamers who spill out as costume characters into a courtyard behind a hotel as I walked by. I follow the open doors in and bravely enter this make-believe world I was not officially invited to. Strangely they all begged to have their photos taken. Their crazy place was my destination of sanctuary, as is the dual definition of Asylum.
Endless characters made up in every extreme, wandered into my view as dramatic gamers struck their poses, giving real life to the roles they played in fictional computer games.
And then, much like the game, the round was over and I left the characters and their playful life threatening episodes behind me.
On the way back to my car, I passed a group of country singers and their groupies gathered in a circle outside a hotel lobby. They spoke in horse tones about the fun they had the night before while smoking cigarettes. I captured a woman in the circle as she thought about how good the cigarette was or whatever existed in her life to make her feel important.
Maybe she was a backup singer in the band and finally made it. Maybe she was the lead, a famous country singer and this was her crew; they were her band, groupies and musicians.
Or maybe she was just remembering a time long ago, when she stood in a circle with her girlfriends as one of them tried to take a picture of them way before they become famous.