This American Life

many dc tourists

When he went to the movies, once it was going and the crowd had pretty much stopped eating snacks and popcorn and slurping their sweetened drinks, he’d turn around in the movie-theater darkness and look at the people. There, they were all still, all the same. They could be old people. They could be Chinese people. They could be kids. They could be men. They could be little or big. They could be white people. They could be Cuban, or Slavic. They could be any people. They all faced the same way, quiet and all together. It was all very peaceful like that. He’d been sitting once on the Fourth of July in the grass outside. A Vermont band was playing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. To get the best seat, he had come early enough to be able to sit in the front row. The cannon went off. It aimed at the Green Mountains. The whole thing was over. When he stood up to leave, he saw the whole crowd of people, half of them with their right hands over their hearts, had been standing. It could have been 200 people, it could have been 500. He was the only person who’d sat through the whole thing and never risen. It had never occurred to him to stand, to salute, to honor the fallen, to commemorate the heroes, to have become part of the sea of patriots on their feet for who knows how long now in the soft country grass. He had not seen them and what they were doing, when they rose together like a sudden tide.

Good Walls Asunder

fallen stone wall

I had nothing left to rely on. A bunch of dog-eared Bob Dylan albums. A decent snow shovel to clear the driveway when winter. Sunblock in the summer. Darkness and full moons came and went as they came and went. The attachments I had had passed through like spider webs in an unseen doorway I never knew I was passing through were stuck to my face and swept away by hand by instinct. The coffee beans I had were ground up and poured into a pot that, steeping, awaited me and a friend I had neglected. Maybe it was possible maybe not. Scatterings of almost forgotten dreams. Remembrances of names and places. A locust shell on a tree trunk as a boy pulling it off, unstuck. A handful of soft coins tossed forever into the Danube. A chicken wire fence put up in ignorance (and innocence) to keep out the animals. A girl he talked to all night instead of conjugating his verbs in Arabic that must have given birth several times by now. The feathering of an oar. The swarming mosquitoes of Nakita. The power out. Just a picture now in his mind of Osip Mandelstam in a shack with his wife for a picture of this.

A Swinger of Birches

birches 3

A young woman had once told him he was mad “but in a good way” when near midnight he tried to board a wooden ship docked in Stockholm. Aged Tibetan monks being guided by female assistants in the metropolis had more than twice stopped in their tracks and run a finger across his brow. “Good forehead lines,” he had been told slowly and carefully by them, and then they moved along on their way. A local painter he painted houses with one season for 10 dollars an hour as a grown man believed and joked about his being a millionaire and that he was just doing this for a little fun in life. (Little did he know the truth of his gratefulness for this job and his boss’ good humor on the ladder beside him.) One of the brass numerals of an older woman’s street address across the road from him had fallen off and he nailed it back in with a tiny hammer and brass escutcheon pins he got at the local hardware store; they became fast friends ever since. A lady he had dined with remarked, after he was done chatting with the blond waiter about mechanical engineering and how he had been told by the young man that soldiers broke their steps when marching across a bridge, that people seemed to like him. When he saw men driving their chrome yellow Hummers passing him on the road in the opposite direction that he was going, he had ceased to give them the middle finger and, if he could roll down his window fast enough to project in a flash to them the socially shaming Facebook thumbs-down sign with his real hand’s left thumb pointing down, he was happy to do that. He was hardly perfect but he was becoming lighter. He could still hear Pieter crying after him in his memory, after Pieter had dined and wined him night after night for nearly a week in Amsterdam many years ago, “Rudy! Rudy!” but, having already turned his back on the old gentleman and walked away some twenty paces, he never became his lover. Indeed, he had already walked alone and seen so many human things there are to see, he knew that one day soon, he would be forever closing his eyes before the quiet face of God.

Plate With Peaches And Pit

plate with peaches

The still lives of the absolutely ordinary can be as fresh, alive—seeming—as they were decades or years before. Half-eaten or half-rotten, the transfixed moment of an instant’s attention is kept and returned to on colored paper now. It does not beg the beautiful nor the architectural nor the everlasting. There can be, though, a human richness in just stopping, in having stopped. Though I do not mean ‘richness’, really. A gleam, a blur, a dislodged peach pit spat out on an Italian plate. The other accoutrements of time are there, too, rendering it ‘actual’, and not made up. Even the bit of handwriting, little indecipherable scribbles, change . . . alter the picture pictured from the quaint (and throwaway) to the real (and possible). It is only the art of seeing with one’s own eyes that must be kept, while the rest will just disappear from the globe and all memory just a little bit sooner.

Photo Art Books

art books

Things just come to be as they are. A moment’s indiscretion, the mindlessness of a hand putting one book down because it doesn’t know where else to put it at the time; the passing misgivings of old ideas, old lovers, who knows. Old gifts, old returns. They just pile up that way. When, later on, one notices the shells of emptied sunflower seeds in a tiny little pile of spilling (a mouse), one notices only then that the mind just isn’t that careless after all. In fact, it almost looks staged, as though items had been moved into place—like movie props, to create a valid scene or two. A statement of sorts: Annie Leibovitz. Vivian Maier. Paul Cezanne. Really quite stunning, quite a triad. But it isn’t like that. Things just happen that way, and one day they become noticed. A mouse enters the picture and changes everything. Only then.

Time On Our Side

collapsing barn

He and his wife had been on their way to hear Bob Dylan. He was playing in a baseball field. He’d heard Lou Reed, B.B. King, and even David Byrne, too, before her. And if there was one thing in the world he had wanted, it was to hear Bob Dylan play, if only once in his life. Along the way, along the rolling grassy green backroad hills to get there, there were small strawberry stands or local honey booths, and posted metal traffic signs along the narrow paved roadside warning motorists to look out for slowly moving Amish wagons. Before getting to Cooperstown, which is known for its Baseball Hall of Fame, there was a gigantic, wooden farm or farmhouse, a country building of some kind, that had been caught in the middle of falling down. There are of course castles in England where from the multitudes of missing stones enough of the walls survive so that the mind recreates them instantly. The imagination’s masonry does it practically without thinking, building up together all the ‘negative’ spaces with the ‘positive’ ones—the sunlit gaps of light with the impenetrable rock solids—to remake these great, regal citadels of yore. They are truly magnificent, and I have dreamt of standing before them one day myself.

But America is a land of barns and fallen wooden things, and wooden things fall apart in different ways than stone ones. Time pulls them down little by little. They don’t get knocked, not by elves exactly. And along the way, they take on new shapes of completely new structures which only remind us of the old and original ones, but don’t quite harken exactly back to them the way true castles do in the moors. Back in 2006, when Bob Dylan was in the hey-day of his Never Ending Tour, it was already over forty years after upsetting the world at Newport by plugging in his electric guitar in ‘65. After almost a decade after that concert in Doubleday Field, after that couple’s marriage had been long shot, the message for them once traveling together still remains the same: things they are always a-changin’, the only thing permanent is impermanence, and for all things that come into being there is decay. As for the show . . . the one put on by music’s august and craggy elder statesman that night in a black cowboy hat had been rockin’ great.

Roadside Prison


There are so many things I have done here, am guilty of here, I don’t know where to end. For sure, the dozens of times I have passed this edifice at the slumped mountains’ feet, I have wondered about who would be watching me if I pulled over to the shoulder of the highway, and walked onto the grass, having climbed over the rolled razor-wire fence. But that could be, or is, beside the point. I could have cranked the attributes of this photo much more, made a much cleaner ‘shot’ of it. I could have tweaked the highlights, contrast, details, saturation, vibrance, and vignetting, and so forth (much more and with much more finesse) very easily and made it into some sort of horribly wrong pastiche of unintended irony in very poor taste. This I have certainly done while shaving my beard off my face several times already in my life, passing through the usual cast of characters from Vladimir Lenin to Frank Zappa, as these shavings rituals go. But from what I have learned from men I spoken with who’ve served time in my life, most of the men behind bars, they got there for having done some pretty stupid stuff, mostly out of ignorance and desperation that lent itself to that. From what I’ve learned, they’re usually not arch villains, public enemies number one. I’d probably get picked off pretty quickly if I tried to sneak up to it. No matter which way you look at it, though, as we speed along the highway in our cars to work and home, fully immersed and involved in our lives, it’s still a pretty weird and unsettling juxtaposition of seeing the lavender beauty of the mountains reaching toward the rich sky blue sky, below which, nestled in the foothills, are hundreds and hundreds of common criminals living in that brick red prison for years and years for their various crimes.

Windswept Horizons


There are places I have known, and regardless of my affections and whatever leanings, this way or that, which I may also have, the somber reminder is there. Cattle die. Kinsmen die. All men are mortal. So said, I read once in a fearsome kids’ book I have never found again, the Viking. When this is seen, not as a marble monument in Washington, nor as some great waxen get-up lying in state in Moscow, but off upon the grassy roadside in the prairie fields of America, death by the wayside strikes another note which is neither religious nor symbolic.

There is instead the blanched grouping of seven well-arranged crosses, none of these lives crucified atop a Roman hill, but all them at once talking, swearing and laughing, teasing each other and probably gossiping about the evening, just enjoying the open speed of the open country in a car together at night, just all slipped away at once. All together. Just like that. Very quietly. These sad reminders are, in fact, everywhere out West in the U.S. They are not anomalies. They are not rare at all. They are there at just about any small bridge or cement-walled overpass you see while driving, clusters of white beautiful crosses, like bright white wildflowers planted by many different pairs of caring human hands grieving across the plains of America.

By The Beach


There are haunts of things so private they must never be shown. They are not necessarily crimes or criminal. They are the opposite. They are like a little secret spring that bubbles under-leaf in the woods tended to once a year. Cleaned up with a hoe and rake, common hand tools, to keep it running. Private things. Like that. Unknown to any other. A glass of room temperature ginger ale. Folding a piece of paper evenly down the middle. The smell of beeswax up close. Medium tide at the beach. Things that are often simple, plain. Often empty. No persons. No smiles and birthday candle blown-out wishes. Vanished from sight, disappeared from the scene, things we can maybe conjure back from our abolished memories like once forgotten pictures. Sometimes they will tell us everything we ever knew (and needed to know) where we were hidden among a crowd of stars so long ago.

It Was A Sky Blue Sky

mediterranean machinery

The preservation of most private moments is lost. These could be decades ago or they could be tomorrow. Gone is the fingered picking through a crate of manila folders, the little creases they get from being pulled out and pushed back in. Gone is the eye standing above, looking below. The quiet blue Mediterranean blue sea was there. And so was that other self deciding ‘whether or not’—whether to take a picture or not, whether to let the shutter fall or not, whether to set the aperture’s opening even smaller, and to take the light in there—or not. The abolishment of this, when “1” now equals “0”—mere placemarkers, not just photography is abolished but it abolishes time itself. Synchronic memory is gone. When a small sector of the world is scanned, forgotten now is the stillness in time, and one’s very place in it—in that—is altogether completely gone. Though one can pick up, pick through, pull out a true photograph from those former times when one was truly alive, and remember the once living self that almost innocently decided to trespass upon daily quietness and take that picture, a remnant of another age, now gone, now held, now remembered itself as ‘artifact’, as fossil, as archeology, as one’s own passing anthropology, and so long as hands can hold it, a 3”X 5” or 4”X6”, a very old picture is so beautiful to behold.