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Tuesday
Oct142014

Hello, Goodbye

Last October, I returned to New York for work. The day I arrived I stood in an elevator and listened to a tall dark woman lament about having to move out of Manhattan. "I mean, I can't even stand the idea. I have everything here! A 24-hour printer, a 24-hour manicurist..." I hid my smirk in my scarf. Those 3am manicures! Those late night Kinko's runs! I know some people live different hours, but 24-hour manicurists? (My neighbor here in Cincinnati works the night shift at the Amazon fulfillment warehouse, though I still can't picture her getting a 3am manicure.)

The man she was talking to shook his head, "yup, you got the best of everything here." Another smirk, deeper in my scarf. I thought of my happy little house on the edge of the creek. The flit of birds at the feeder. Each person has his own version of best. I stepped out of the elevator and tripletted my way into the subway. I pulled out my book and smiled again at the echo of the man's words: The Best Of Everything by Rona Jaffe. In it, a young secretary has just been shown a dirty picture by the ticket man in the subway. I looked around me. People teetered over the edge of the platform, waiting for the train. A man with a shopping cart piled high with his belongings and antique crosses stood barefoot on a piece of cardboard, bending over an open book in prayer. I stood watching him, considering his prayer, wondering how he ended up there. One of the platform waiters walked into my field of vision, trying to break my gaze from the praying man. This is not what we do here. Don't look. Don't look at this dirty picture.

Little did they know I was praying with him.

I spent the week packing in as many friends as possible amidst a week of work. I visited I Hate Perfume and bought slightly overpriced pine-scented "home spray." I found a prized Nazz album at a Brooklyn flea mall. I ate Persian food and drank copious gin fizzes and large glasses of wine in dim and dimmer bars and photographed my parents leaping in front of brightly colored trees in Prospect Park. I tickled a friend's baby and scarfed down a pork bun in a crowded fancy restaurant's Brooklyn outpost. I visited the first restaurant I ever went to when I lived in New York, still there, and ordered the very same steak salad, still on the menu, and still as tasty. I turned in my seat as the Q train emerged from the tunnel onto the Manhattan Bridge. As I always did. Rituals from my own New York past.

On my last night in the city, I met Masha, a retired actress, on a white couch beneath an overgrown palm tree in an apartment in Washington Heights. I told her that I was a writer when we were talking about careers in the arts, and why she gave up hers, and as we were commiserating over money issues she said "You know what you should read? There's this book called Goodbye To All That. I'm reading it now."

I nodded and shouted that the book was in my bag, bookmarked by my MetroCard, fresh of the top of the stack of them at Greenlight Bookstore ("Do you have a Greenlight loyalty card?" "No, I've said goodbye to all this." "..." "Sorry, bad joke." "No, nice use of the title. Where do you live now?" "Cincinnati." "I just moved here, two months ago." "Where from?" "Phoenix." "Wow, that's quite a change. Well, hello to all this for you...")

Masha's was the story of the native New Yorker: she grew up a block from the Chelsea Hotel (Patti Smith's New York in Just Kids "those stale donuts she describes? I used to drool over those stale donuts!"), and we sat on the white couch under the overgrown palm tree and talked about how sad we were about what New York had become and she said "I know but you're lucky that you have somewhere else that feels like home. What else do I have?"

When I first heard about this book, I was furiously jealous I didn't get to write one of the essays. I could write this essay. I HAVE written this essay. I didn't read any of the essays at first that were being flung around the internet because I knew it would heighten my jealousy. Then Emily linked to Rebecca Woolf's So Long, Suckers and in a fit of weakness I read. And I shook. And I nodded so violently my head hurt. Because here was exactly how I felt, perhaps a bit angrier than I was at the city, but just as betrayed. Emily said that she would have loved to have read my essay for this book, and I wrote to her that if the Woolf essay was any indication, then anything I might have to say was already said in this book. And oh how it was. Multiple women refer to New York as "the ex." Elisa Albert, bless her, even mirrors my insane obsession with malls after first leaving the city. Editor Sari Botton's rent-stabilized situation, the ball-and-chain that keeps so many of us there (but you have such a great apartment!) for far too long, matched mine so nearly that I had to look in the mirror after reading it just to make sure I was me. There are those who felt complacent staying too long, those who said the city was no longer their city...

Masha the retired actress echoed Emma Straub's frustration with people from anywhere but New York saying they are New Yorkers. "You know what I say?" said Masha "I ask them where they went to high school," a refrain that sounded deliciously familiar to me from conversations among natives in Cincinnati. I never was a New Yorker. I never even pretended to be, though I may have behaved at one time like someone's expectation of one. But I was always an Ohioan. And I always had Ohio to come back to.

On the train back to the hotel (dear god, a hotel in New York! With the dark window overlooking a shaft and the bloodstains on the top corner of the mattress where the sheet is coming loose) there was a man on that very very cold night begging for money, walking up and down the subway car in a T-shirt and bare feet exposing one missing toe, saying "Please help. God bless everybody. Please help. God bless everybody. Please help." Before collapsing near the subway doors and holding his head in tears. I suddenly couldn't remember if I'd seen him before, if he was one of the ones hardened New Yorkers tell you to ignore, or if he really needed my help, and for a moment I considered what might happen if I took his hand and took him to buy shoes.

Back at the hotel I called J and told him about the man on the subway and he said how different it must be to see a guy like that when you live there and you have money, versus living in Ohio and worried about how you'll pay for your plumbing issues.

So many essays in Goodbye To All That begin with stepping over bodies. And I left New York that time, not remembering if I'm supposed to step over the body or not. Or if it's my body being stepped over.

***

A year later, I returned again for work. This time I was staying with my brother in Brooklyn, on a brownstone-and-tree-lined street butting up against the back of the bandshell in Prospect Park. On my first day there, I pickled something. The mornings when I commuted into work, I saw so many children with parents walking them to school that I thought they were actual field trips. We ate bahn mi from the Vietnamese place on 7th Ave, and at night I watched the distant Empire State Building changing colors. I walked through Columbus Park in Chinatown and sat on a bench eating dumplings and listening to the sounds of Cantonese and Chinese Chess and erhus. I marveled at the tops of skyscrapers. I even talked with strangers on the subway.

I was more at peace with the city than I’d ever been.

Of course there were still times I lost my patience. I had a cab driver who drove too fast and made me nervous. I witnessed more than a few fights among strangers. After a Bryant Park lunch with an old co-worker, he accidentally led us through Times Square, and more than several times I was bumped, shuffled, blocked, spun around, to the point where I found myself standing still and screaming to the heavens. I’d lost my New York mojo.

There was something significantly different about this trip, and I realized that I had let go of any idea of this city as mine in the present: it was someone else’s city now. The gaggles of young kids standing in line for a club on the Lower East Side, a line through which we cut like a picket line after karaoke. “I could be their mother,” I said as we stood on the curb, watching their eagerness. The throngs of young professionals who now clogged the entrance of my office building, names I’d never know, editorial assistants who would one day soon rise to publishing stardom. Even most of the people I love who still live in the city were talking about their plans to leave it, and I realized that they were more or less my last ties there, and it now belonged to someone else.

My place was taken. I embraced the fact that I was nothing more than a tourist now.

On the Friday of my last weekend in the city, I was forced again to walk through Times Square to get to the train that would take me back to the brownstone-and-tree-lined streets of Brooklyn. I lamented it over the phone to J, who understood what I meant. Times Square was the worst torture ever held over the heads of resident New Yorkers.

But that’s not who I was any more.

I walked down 42nd street and looked at the street artists doodling caricatures of European and midwestern tourists. And then I saw him: an artist sculpting a bearded man out of clay. He moved his hands quickly and expertly, adding and subtracting gray mounds where the beard began to take shape. The subject’s friend stood to the side watching.

“This is amazing,” I said.

“Isn’t it?” His friend said. “He could work really fast and churn out hundreds of these but he’s really taking his time on each one. My buddy’s been here over half an hour.”

I decided I would be his next subject. After the bearded man and his buddy left, I sat on the little folding stool, possibly the first time I’d ever sat still on 42nd street instead of attempting to pierce my way through the throngs as quickly as possible.

The artist, whose name was Lin, had studied at the art academy in China. He hadn’t sculpted for 30 years, but decided to pick it up again last year.

“All people are artwork,” he said.

“Awkward?” I misheard.

“Artwork,” he repeated.

I told him my favorite number in Chinese was “er shi er” - 22, because I liked the sound of it. He then told a story in Mandarin to his neighboring vendor, during which I heard “er shi er” repeated a few times.

“Do you understand me?” he said in English.

“Not really,” I admitted, and so he repeated the story for me as he sculpted.

He had been gambling in China, and he sat at a roulette table. The dealer spun the wheel and then the ball, and it landed on 22. Nobody had won. But Lin had $300 left in his pocket, and at the table behind him, he said he heard the wheel spinning, making the same noise as the losing wheel in front of him had made. At both tables the dealer had started the opposite spin of the ball on the number “2,” and as Lin listened, he knew that the same sound (“chchchch” he imitated the whirl of the roulette wheel) meant that the ball would land on 22. He placed his bet, and he won.

“You mentioned 'er shi er,' which makes me think of this story,” said Lucky Lin.

Two women stood over his shoulder the entire time, commenting on his progress. “Oh my GOD that NOSE, that’s JUST like her nose.” “See that bump there on her cheek? He even got that right oh my GOD!” These women delighted me so much I kept laughing, until Lin reminded me to turn my head and resume my pose.

And so I sat still, for half an hour, looking a stranger in the eyes as he studied my face, and all the people trying to pierce the throngs of 42nd street passed by and commented on the progress of his artwork. When he finished, he turned to show it to me, and I saw myself at 38, exactly as I look. He even got the crease in my forehead, carved by years of anxiety, just right. In his rendition of me, I’m smiling the smile of someone who has been down a few roads, but is fine with where they all led her, and is now sitting in a place she never thought she’d sit still in, laughing with strangers.

I was there in the place I thought I hated most in a city that was no longer mine, listening to the sound of the spinning roulette wheel. And I knew then that I could finally beat the house by just stopping to listen.

***

Never Can Say Goodbye, the counterpart to Goodbye To All That, comes out today. And I can’t wait to read it, because I’m finally in the place where I’m happy to read about someone else’s city, a city that is part of my past, a city I said goodbye to long ago, ready to make my own mark in another great city. I’m lucky I had somewhere else to go, another place I could call mine. To those of you who loved and lost your New York: I'm so sorry. Honestly. To those of you who now embrace New York to the fullest, just as it is: please, it’s yours. I've vacated my spot, I'll accept whatever changes you make to it. Allow me this: just to pass through slowly, as a tourist again, head up, marveling at the tops of skyscrapers.

 

Monday
Aug252014

Ice Bucket Challenged

I watched the videos fly by in my timeline, people dumping buckets of all sizes on their heads, everyone with the same O face afterwards. The fails and the flops. The lady on a horse, the entire Reds outfield. 

And then, weeks after it began, when everyone was starting to become fatigued and the backlash was in full swing, I was challenged by my brother. He said that I could lip-sync to "Ice Ice Baby" if I wanted to, and lord knows I know all the words, but it didn't seem like enough. As I watched the water fly around Facebook, I realized that even though I'd seen a hundred videos, I had no idea what ALS really did to a person. My awareness of the challenge was raised more than my awareness of the disease.

In response to my brother's challenge, I thought of doing an "Ice Cream Bucket challenge," eating an entire pint of Graeter's ice cream. I thought of dunking my cats into an ice bucket. The internet would have loved that. Videos aren't really my forte, though, so I thought I might write about ice buckets. About the shock of O face you see when someone tells you they have a disease. The feeling of loss at an announcement of death. 

But I do enough of that.

None of it seemed quite right to me. None of it told me the story of ALS, a story I'm only distantly familiar with, once watching a friend's grandmother waste away with it in one of the darkened back rooms of her house. I had no other knowledge of the disease other than that memory of a silent old woman lying so still there in her bed. And so I decided to do a little research instead. 

At first I tried to find videos showing affected people on YouTube, but when you search "ALS" there, all you see are videos of ice bucket fails and Bill Gates' contraption. So I did some grown-up research by actually reading a few things. It didn't take that much longer to find information on ALS than it does to dump a bucket of water on your head. Here are some facts about ALS I found on the internet, including on the ALSA's website:

  • ALS stands for "amyotrophic lateral sclerosis." Lou Gehrig had it, and his retirement from baseball is when it started to receive greater attention from the public, which is why it's often called Lou Gehrig's Disease. Here's his farewell speech, with the help of some other ballplayers. 
  • The early symptoms of ALS are muscle weakness or stiffness. "Progression of weakness, wasting and paralysis of the muscles of the limbs and trunk as well as those that control vital functions such as speech, swallowing and later breathing generally follows."
  • There is no test for ALS, nor is there a known cure.
  • The life expectancy for people diagnosed with ALS is variable. While many people live no more than two or three years after diagnosis, "about twenty percent of people with ALS live five years or more and up to ten percent will survive more than ten years and five percent will live 20 years."
  • A small number of ALS cases are attributed to a hereditary gene, though most cases (90-95%) are not. Anyone can get ALS, though it is not contagious.

Still not satisfied? Sorry for not posting a video of me getting wet, but here is a much more important video to watch of a man who has just been diagnosed with ALS taking care of his mother, who also has ALS, so that you can actually see what it does to a person. In it, he talks about why this viral awareness is important to those with ALS: since the number of people with ALS is so small, drug companies don't want to invest in finding a cure. It's not a popular enough disease to warrant treatment. That made me incredibly sad. 

I'm making donations to both the ALSA as well as the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, because I want to make sure that other organizations and causes I care about don't lose out, and I'm challenging all of you to educate yourselves a little bit about a disease that may not have affected you personally, but seems to be on the tips of everyone's tongues lately, or at the bottom of an ice bucket.

Wherever you find it, that's my challenge to you. 

Thursday
Jul242014

In The Picture

The brown sign says "Malabar Farm 9" and on a whim, I pull my car off to the right. I've got time.

This isn't my first trip to Malabar. Years ago, we took a tour there, marvelled at the author's books on the bookshelf, listened to stories of his wife's interior design. We admired wallpaper and bedspreads and looked at ourselves in the ornate mirrors of the Big House. But today my visit is fleeting; I simply stopped to smell the cow poo. 

It's still early; the gardener is weeding the patches of mulch around the flower bushes, just down the steps from where Bacall and Bogey posed for their wedding pictures.

There's a carving of Ganesha over the doorway. I notice that birds have built a nest behind it. Behind me, the green hills of Richland County roll out in waves, the sound of a distant mower revs up from behind a line of trees. The sky is a bright and intense blue, spotted with cotton ball clouds: unreal, like a child's Sunday school project. A rooster crows, a sheep baas. I peer over the fence at the animals in their pens. What a good life they have here in these hills.

"Do you want me to take your picture in front of the cows or something?" says an approaching farmer, lifting his John Deere hat off his brow, smiling his tanned cheeks at me and placing his arms akimbo.

"No thanks, I'm just here to take pictures of the house."

"You don't want yourself in the picture, huh."

But, dear farmer, I want to say, I am in the picture. I'm here in this picture as much as that famous Hollywood wedding is still here, as much as Bromfield atop his tractor. My face is in these hills, this sky. This farm is why my grandparents met. This is where my dad would ride his motorcycle, this is where his sisters would go blueberry picking. My grandparents, buried up the hill and around the bend, are now part of this earth, part of every blade of grass. My story is in these hills, in the dust we're stirring here now, exchanging words next to braying donkeys and clucking chicks.

I wanted to tell him: I am in the picture. I always will be.

Later, on the phone with Dad, I tell him where I stopped today, and say how lucky I think he was to grow up in one of the most beautiful places in the world. On the other end of the phone line, there's a brief, whistful silence, and I think how he'll always be right there in that picture too.

(I first wrote about my attachment to Malabar Farm and Louis Bromfield back in 2006.)

Friday
Jun202014

Everything There Is

The fireflies low on the fields of freshly planted corn and soy
Taking your breath away so sharply you think that might be the moment you leave the earth
It's a joy and a fear of dying so strong that it's almost as if the joy will cause your death
The moment when you realize that you can't record what you're looking at
The fear of not being able to put those moments down in words, or in photographs, or in paint
Because that is our immortality
And so instantly you face your mortality with the beauty and the joy
And everything there is
Terrified that you won't get those words down before you go
To the point where you rely on the voice recorder on your cell phone
To do the work for you as you race along the highway
So you remember those fireflies, that corn, that soy
The mist hanging low over the hills after the rain of the storm
The lightning flashing through the clouds in pinks and orange
The light of the sign: Ted Nugent is playing soon at the Indian Creek Tavern
Cars pull up, you wish you could go, but you know you're female, you know you're scared
But that light: the lighted arrows pointing the way
And yet you drive, and get lost, and drive by a cemetery
And hold your breath because you know that you're so vulnerable
That that could be the moment that it takes you
That you leave, that you're gone
The fireflies, the corn, the mist, the soy, the lights

Sunday
Mar022014

How I Learned To Love The Mall

I get a text: "I am at a mall."

It's Jim. He's at a mall. This is not the first time I've received such a text. People tend to think of me when they visit malls.

"Still awaiting the illuminating essay how I learned to stop hating and love the mall."

Earlier that day I'd gone to the mall to see a baby kangaroo. I follow this mall on Twitter; they follow me back. We have a mutual love. It's no secret.

"Because this makes me want to build a doomsday shelter."

I know: I have a fetish. I have a strange and insatiable fetish for malls. For the skylights and fake trees, the slick reflective tiles, escalators carrying teens to the food court. Nail salons. Generic clothing stores. Kiosks. The fountain.

A fetish for something that everyone else hates. A fetish for ugly. I can try to help you love the mall. But it might just be a predilection.

* * *

I have very distinct rules for enjoying the mall.

#1 GO ALONE
I never, ever go to the mall with other people. I can't even imagine going to the mall with other people. (Jim, as a male on your own, this might not work for you, especially if you bring your camera. I acknowledge that this part of it makes it a huge benefit to be a white female, although I still think I get weird looks sometimes.) This allows me to experience it at my own pace; five minutes if that's all I need, or fifty if the mood strikes. The Zen of the Mall is being alone with your thoughts; not speaking, just listening. Mall acoustics are fantastic in that they both magnify and mute: the hubbub of commotion reduced to a hush of distinct words. It allows you to both be very much in the moment, and also alone and separate from other people's experiences should you wish to be.

#2 DO NOT GO THERE JUST TO SHOP
Of course, it's important to support the businesses in malls or there would be no malls. Many of the stores in malls today are small businesses: locally-owned, specialized; I feel completely comfortable spending money to support the local artists in the airbrush store, or the family-owned baseball cap store where the bags are generic and the grandson helps at the cash register during the holiday season. (I also spend money in locally owned businesses downtown and in my own neighborhood.)

Whenever I feel obligated to go to a mall to shop, though, I can feel the same pressures that make other people hate the experience. I don't like feeling obligated to move faster through the crowds, I don't like that there has to be a destination. There is no enjoyment when you have a distinct purpose: there is no stopping to enjoy the way the light through the skylight hits the walls, the way the fake leaves on the fake trees are flapping in the fake breeze.

#3 APPRECIATE THE FOLIAGE
I know the plants are probably fake; I love them anyway. They're well-placed and well-chosen, symmetrical; a form of interior landscaping artwork. I love their futuristic plasticity; I love that maybe someday when we're no longer here, they could still be. 

#4 BRING A CAMERA
It's very likely that one day I will be approached by mall security for the number of photos I take in malls. For the fact that I go to the mall almost exclusively to take photographs. (In fact, I have been approached by them once, when I'd very obviously arrived at the nearly empty mall to take pictures with my larger camera. Since then, I've stuck to cell phone photographs and point-and-shoot cameras.) Of course, I try to avoid taking pictures of children, and anyone else who very obviously doesn't want to be photographed. While it's too late to create something like this, I also think that mall society presents a very interesting cross-section of humans, and documenting it makes sense to me. More than anything, it's the light I love. Mall architecture is designed for photography: the skylights filter the light perfectly, creating a beautiful assortment of postive and negative space and well-lit landscapes. There are focal pieces, textures, and a calming emptiness. There is ample room to move around and find different angles, find the way the light hits the geometry of the cathedral ceilings best. The mall is, to me, a playground of light and portrait subjects and sculpture, the largest photographic studio you can imagine.

#5 SIT DOWN
After visiting the mall kangaroo, I was headed back to the car when I saw an older lady sitting cozily on a bench near the Macy's entrance, just watching the people go by. She had a smile I recognized from older ladies on park benches; the joy of experiencing humanity as an observer, watching life happen, watching the people go about their business, feeling their experience in a way that is easy. When it's too cold for park benches, mall benches make wonderful substitutions. I can't wait until I'm the age where it's acceptable to stare at passersby with that look in your eye: I'm enjoying watching life through you. I'm enjoying imagining your stories, where you might head next, what brought you here in the first place. 

I wanted to take this woman's picture, but when I thought about it, I realized that it was enough to take her story and her lesson. Sit down. Watch life go by.

But these are just my rules. 

* * *

When I moved back to Ohio three years ago, the first thing I noticed was how suddenly accepting I was of everything that once stood for conformity. Sports. Cars. Malls. These were the things that, when I lived here in the 90s, drove me to dress all in black, and yet to decry the proliferation of Doc Martens worn by those who didn't even listen to punk music; to make blanket statements like "I hate jocks" or "look at all those assholes with cellphones." 

But when I moved back here, I started to understand something important that I couldn't grasp before: There's a unique and delectable challenge to finding self within sameness. It narrows the scope of vision and focuses it on smaller but more important differences you might not have noticed before: it helps you to realize that, truthfully, there is no sameness. That's a myth constructed for us, a myth we don't have to buy into even when we're participating in the very thing they are selling.

Of course, there's also a huge element of nostalgia embedded in these "conformist" fetishes. Not the nostalgia for something familiar but just the opposite: the nostalgia of an alternate reality. When I go to a ballgame, I'm imaging what it might have been like to grow up as a jock, a girl who embraced the sports side of her tomboyishness (instead of the side that cut her hair off and played bass in bands). When I visit the mall, I'm visiting someone else's teenage years, someone who spent hours with friends swinging their feet under a table and gabbing over a shared tray of french fries, someone who flipped through records at Sam Goody's (not just on the occasion you were there with your grandma and convinced her to buy you the new Sir-Mix-A-Lot cassette in spite of the explicit content sticker). Someone who wears lots of Ed Hardy.

Because more than lists of rules and appreciation of the way the skylight forms the sun onto its walls, my love of malls is about other people's stories. I visit to absorb them, to reimagine them, to collect them. What the mall teens wandering in packs talking about. What the woman at the MAC counter with a saddlebag of makeup brushes does when she clocks out from showing people the best way to apply eyeshadow. I go to the mall because I want to be that old lady on the bench, absorbing life as it goes by. There are a million places I could do this, but the light, the plants, the shiny floor tiles, the people: it's a little slice of perfection for me. It's easy. It's society under one roof. It's social commentary. It's both futuristic and nostalgic. It's heaven.

 

(There is a much longer essay to be written — one that would require a lot more research that I have time to give right now — about where I think malls should be headed: more social and community engagement, less commercially-focused. I also want to acknowledge that malls are currently horribly unenvironmental, both ecologically and socially. This doesn't mean that they always have to be: I'm a believer in progressive approaches to improving the impact these already-built structures have on our lives and our environment.)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.