02 May 2016

steps


The moment arrives, me on my knees with my hands stretched towards her. She leans back against N, her face caught in surprise. I can see the ideas turning over in her, yes, no, yes, no. She stares at me.
I clap my hands together once and then again.
"Come on, come on." I say, laughing, trying to make this into a game.
She looks up at N, her chin all the way to the sky.
N tells her it is ok.
In one movement, her foot lurches forward and then the next. Her hands are waving like she wants to fly not walk. She steps quickly, her face smashing into my chest as she arrives. I am whooping and crowing and she is shouting. I wonder what the neighbors think we are doing in here.
N's face is serene, glowing. She drinks it all in with quiet grace.

V will go back and forth between us, steps growing longer. Her face lights up each time, her little bottom wiggling back and forth. E is watching, leaning on a doorway, lost in thought. I wonder if she is trying to remember her first steps, what she must have been like so many years ago.

I sigh. I breathe in deep, my knees starting to hurt from the hardwood floor. V wants to do it one more time before dinner.





25 April 2016

she knows



The call comes. I ask E if she is interested. She shrugs her shoulders. It has been about a year since she did a voice record. I can't tell if she is removed or wants to do it. I ask her directly, yes or no and no is ok. She wants to. I think of parents I have seen, ones that push things on their children, tricking them, guilting them. I want her to chose this, or to have a normal Friday afternoon. We could just go for sushi and look out the big windows at the people on the street below. 

I take her from school the next day. We order a taxi, siting hot in the back seat in traffic. The weather changes so quickly here. We go upstairs, and wait for half an hour but I remind her how important it is to be on time. She nods, she knows. 

The script is long with plenty of alternates. I hear her voice through the speakers, so serious these days, and she needs to slow down. The directions come, little fixes to the text get made. She sits, a little slumped, pencil in hand. I hear her struggling in a good way, searching, finding the right balance, finding the way to go up at the end of a sentence even though the urge is to go down. Man, she sounds too much like me, I tell myself. This is surreal. Well, she has been on this side of the glass for so many of my voice records, am I really surprised? 

She needs to sound younger, more innocent, more naive. I tell her to shrug her shoulders a little, to feel the curl of the corners of her mouth go up and how that changes the sound. People always want it to sound sweeter, happier. 

And all at once we are done and people are shaking hands and bowing heads and little avalanches of thank yous are raining on us. I pull her close, tell her quietly that she did good, that it was a tough script and a long one. Her chin pinches up, her eyes as big as saucers. 

She knows. 




18 April 2016

where (part 2)



It is raining, the sky a green, gray marshmallow. E has been on vacation for a week. I finish work early, and tell her to get dressed. The cameras are tucked into my bag. Extra film and a light meter all find their places. E slings her camera across her shoulder, bringing it with her. 

Outside, the street is shiny. We pull our collars close to our necks. I point towards the main road with a glance and she nods. There is a bus stop, and I take pictures of the people behind the milky windows of the trolley bus for that moment when the doors slosh open and then thwack shut. We start downhill, towards the river. Sometimes I stop, waiting for the right old woman to creep past us. Sometimes E stops, fascinated with a railing on a bridge, or a view that swings wide as we pass some dead trees. There are no words, just nods and looks, but I cannot help but smile at her.

We are under the bridge, dark and heavy as it reaches across the green water. 

There is the aftermath of a car accident, a very common sight here where people treat the road and other drivers like fantasies until they smack into a railing or a bumper, or a person. A man is running across the six lane street, and I get one frame of him with the crumpled white Range Rover in the background. Maybe that is something, I tell myself.

We have walked almost 2 miles, and tuck into a Georgian place for lunch. We order khinkali, giant dumplings stuffed with beef and pork and chili and black pepper. They are full of a sort of broth they create, so eating them is a balancing act, a dance between slurps and guesses and then forcing the remainder into your mouth. E eats them with the unrushed grace of an old man, not a drop on the plate. 

Later, she will show me the pictures she takes. One is of me in my long, dark coat under the bridge. That is how she sees me, I realize. My cheeks flush. 

We will bring the film to the lab the next day, and pick it up a few days later. 

She hovers behind me as I scan them. She nods, saying "yes, I know. I was there" with no more than her chin on my shoulder. 







11 April 2016

where (part 1)

Jim only takes pictures within three miles of his home. His images do not feel like they are made under any limitations. They simply are about what they are about. I like this interview of him very much.

I struggle a lot, not knowing why and what I should be photographing. I think that has to do with being an outsider here, not a tourist, not a local. There is a closed-off element to most things Russian. Kremlin (kreml) basically means "wall". There are walls around everything here. Even in the cemeteries, there are little fences around each grave, as if the dead themselves can be annoyed by unwelcome feet above them. I often feel like I am trespassing here, especially when there is a camera tucked in my pocket.

Something shifted last December. Maybe it was the return of an old film stock I love that had stopped production and by some miracle had reappeared. When I saw the Agfa APX boxes in the cold case at the lab, my stomach twisted, my voice became invisible in my throat as I pointed at it, my hand slowly shaking in the air. Yes, I am capable of a  love affair with film emulsion. Some people are goofy for cars, or watches, or guns, or radios, guitars, espresso machines, turntables. I am one of them.

I shot a test roll, and a fresh wave of inspiration pulled at me. I would shoot close to our apartment, and not for a year but just a few months, just during winter and see what I came up with. Jim is a good influence, is all I can say. Something about being direct and sparse with nowhere to hide, it felt like a good place to start. I brought the camera with me every afternoon as I travelled to get E from school, shooting a frame or not, taking meter readings, studying the faces and the way the light bangs sideways into the trolley bus at one point as it runs along the river, and that this light paints everyone's faces for a handful of seconds. Many close their eyes. Some cross themselves because there is a famous church across the river from there. Like a bank robber, I cased the locations, making mental notes of everything.

One roll was destroyed because I went out in -20C shooting a few hours too long on a Sunday morning and the film got brittle. I ripped it into shreds as I advanced it. A few more rolls and the epiphanies began to roll in. "Don't waste your time with these." I told myself about the shots you cannot avoid taking, the ones you need to get out of your system like the 100,000 words every writer has to commit to paper, in order to toss them and never think of them again. You have to get the poison out.

I found myself talking a lot, inside my head, arguing, debating, never compromising. No, that is too easy. No, that is too cruel. Yes, that is something, but now it is already gone.

Then, there was a trip to the lab with seven rolls to process. I had to wait a week before they were ready, and when I did look at them it was terrifying. What if nothing that I had imagined was there? What if they were crooked? What if my focus was off, so close to people dozing off in their chairs, scared to shoot more than one frame.


(to be continued)





04 April 2016

mercy

We go to a little store by us, that has no real name just the one everyone calls it - the "long store". It is a Soviet one, with little counters where you can buy different categories of food, paying individually at each one. We stand at the meat one, so I can buy a piece of pork shoulder. An old lady picks coins from her purse in slow, methodical movements as she pays for a tiny chunk of beef. The woman behind the counter juts her chin at me. I slide towards the pork trays, pointing at the piece I want.

"How big?" She asks me.
I point again at the one I want.
She is shoving her arm into a box behind the counter, pulling out another piece. It is a lump of meat in a cloudy plastic bag, sagging with pink blood.
"Fresh!" She announces to me in a big voice, waving it in the air. "And juicy!"
I shake my head no.
"Too big?" She asks, and goes back to the box.
I point once again at the piece I want.
"This one, just this one." I tell her.
"Oh, Gospodi." She blurts out, staring at me. ("Oh, god" or "Oh God have mercy.")

I stand there. E is looking up at me, shrugging her shoulders.

The woman eventually wraps up the pice I have been asking for the whole time, slapping it hard on the scale. I pay, and she throws my change at me, almost to the floor.

Outside, E's empty lunchbox thumps against her leg.

We walk in silence, even in the elevator.




28 March 2016

the other shoe

 

As soon as the news arrives, I check in on a friend that lives in Brussels. A father, a husband. He is safe, telling me he was in that airport just a week ago. We send messages back and forth. I am working, creating animations for news stories that people read on their smartphones. I have the images right in front of me, with the names of the photographers who took them, the blood and smoke, the giant gaping wound that was once a window. I see hands lost in empty gestures, the faces of stewardesses tight and pale.

Just then a new wave of news arrives, about the metro bombs going off.
I tell my friend there is more going on.
He pauses.
"Not good." He replies.
He signs off, to begin a day I cannot imagine very well.
My phone rings.
E is telling me they are evacuating her school.
A pit rises in my stomach, instantly sour and biting against the walls of my chest. Maybe they are just being paranoid, I tell myself. Her school is just across a small bend in a river that snakes around the White House. They are sending everyone home, that's all. I tell myself.
But really, this is the sound of the other shoe dropping, the one I am prepared for, the one I will not be surprised by. It hangs inches above the ground for months, even years. It looms in shadow, but I go to sleep knowing it is there all the same.
She sends me a message.
"Never mind." She says.
I call her.
There is no evacuation, just a conference of teachers and they did not tell anyone about it. The classroom is going to be used to store their coats or something. Nothing more. It is a false alarm.

E hears the tension in my voice, my words choking out.
"What is it Pop?" She asks me. "I can wait for you in a different room to get me, like normal."
"Nothing." I tell her.
My instinct is to keep this story quiet. Let her live a day longer without a blanket of dread wrapped around her thoughts. Let her breathe quietly, laugh at some little something, look out a window, daydream. Anything but this chewing on the news, this gristle and bone of ugliness.









21 March 2016

old school


Even here, the sad undertow of modernization takes its toll. There are a fleet of shiny blue busses on our route now. They replaced a series of random ones, covered in mud, lurching and shaking, held together with duct tape and lumpy welds, floors slick with spilled soda and beer. The old drivers were like the seven dwarves, one always laughing and smiling, one fiercely angry, one tired with red bags under his eyes, one fat, one skinny. And then, one day they were replaced. The new busses were driven by faceless men behind a glass, taking no money making no jokes just a yellow box to swipe your transit card against and recorded announcements for each stop. 

On the return trip home, we stand in a messy parking lot where different busses slam their brakes letting people off, drivers grabbing cigarettes and plastic cups of hot tea, gunning their engines and roaring off towards the river or the forest or the White House. Many of their routes pass close enough to us, so we have a habit of taking the one that is ready to leave instead of waiting for the shiny blue ones. We need to call out our stop to them in a loud voice or they will just keep driving. 

394 is ours today. The bus is an old Soviet design  - all giant bubble windows, seats on strange pedestals but plenty of room. The ceiling does not hover inches above our heads, but feels more like a miniature cathedral. No one squeezes past me as they make their way down the aisle on this ride. The drivers are all short, hairy little men that must own a single, dull razor they use randomly every few weeks. His hands are filthy as I hand the exact change to him.

The bus is half-full and he turns the ignition. A spark emerges, then a strange sound and the lights go off. A man who drives another one of the same busses leaps from the sidewalk, yanking the folding door open and pushing the bus. The driver throws the transmission into gear by force, and the bus rolls slowly, quietly. The man pushing us is wheezing, singing some strange song, repeating some curious poem. I nudge E's elbow and we smile at each other. We have a front row seat at the circus, for 30 rubles a piece. 

People are running down the sidewalk, shoving past the man that is still pushing us, getting onto the bus while it is in motion, not apologizing or saying thank you, just trampling him. The motor does not start and we are rolling slowly into traffic. The driver yanks the emergency brake on. He climbs back towards us, and pulls a floorboard up. I see what I think is the battery there, mid-way back in the giant machine, exposed to the road, no cover. How many times did we sit there, with our feet resting on it? He shakes some clips, and there is a little spark. We smell ozone now.

He nods at the passenger sitting next to the driver's seat and tells him to turn the ignition. The man leans out and does this without hesitating. The lights flick on. People are still shoving their way onto the bus. One steps on the driver's hands. He says nothing, swinging back to his seat and the engine does turn over now, all lusty diesel and smoke. We roll off towards the river as he makes change for the people standing in the aisle.