23 February 2015

a dress rehearsal (landscape of a man, part 2)

When the air runs warm and the snow starts to melt, it is no surprise that I feel restless. If I had long hair, I might walk into a barber shop and ask to cut them everything off like I used to. The streets are crusted with dog shit long hidden in snow banks. Children wander towards playgrounds still wrapped head to toe. They will be in snowsuits until the trees turn green. 

I wake in the middle of the night, listen to N's breathing and then go to the kitchen for a glass of water. I check on E, curled like a fern on top of her blankets, a hand stretched out to some imaginary friend. A shovel rakes against the sidewalk downstairs. I am not the only one up.

Is this a belated mid-life crisis? I ask myself on some days, this fresh urge to create, to be prolific, to follow my muse wherever it takes me with a sort of reckless urgency. Or, did I simply hit a sweet spot? Did I make some soup, did I cook up an alignment of planets, did I keep the motor running all these years and finally it feels like new destinations are just around the next corner? I have no idea. I make dinner. I try to make the bed. I try to find things in boxes that I have misplaced. I try to put my teacup in the sink.

And then the snow returns. This was a dress-rehearsal for Spring. The flakes are flapping against the windows.

09 February 2015

ten second romances

The metro is oddly quiet, even as throngs of people squash past each other. As usual, I think of penguins while the crowd takes tiny steps, funneling into the escalators. The metro photographs well, all Soviet retro glam and decadence but no one ever looks up, or marvels at the chandeliers. Faces down, staring at phones or eyes simply closed. No flirting glances at the faces on the escalator going up, no ten second romances.

I have begun to feel more than the typical winter emptiness. The city is especially barren, more gray, more muddy, more defeated. Everyone I stand next to smells like stale cigarettes. I think of some Washington blowhard who described Russia as "a gas station pretending to be a country". Of course, this is just an underhanded insult, a cheap shot made from a distance. Today, I think Moscow is a forgotten ashtray, crammed full of cigarettes burned down to the filter, some with lipstick, some stained yellow, crammed into an ancient bit of cheap crystal, heavy, filthy, sitting in the middle of a kitchen table.

I have a voice record session in an hour and a half, so I find a quiet place to have some breakfast. They have eggs, but I am trying to remember how to say I want them scrambled. I say "kak omlet" and the waiter thinks I want to order an omelette. No, I shake my head, making a stirring pattern with two fingers. "Tolka dva yaitsom" (just two eggs) I say, and he nods and says a word, maybe something like "meshayetsom" but I am just guessing. I shrug my shoulders, he wanders off.

The papers are pulled from my Ghurka.

I was looking for my fountain pen in the morning before I took Eva to school, half-laughing and half-sad that it was taking me so long to find it. "And you call yourself a writer." I said out loud, trying to squeeze some humor out of the moment. Drawers swung open, envelopes and ink pots, momentos and credit cards rattling around.

The pen is light in my hand. I think of that day in Florence when N bought it for me every time I use it. The pages stare back up at me, waiting for the final section of the final story to unfold. The work begins as always, a meditation, a brutal act of revision, a note about something missing, the need for connective tissue where the story disintegrates. A voice creeps up the back of my neck. "This is the best thing you have ever done." It tells me and I shrug it off. I don't like this voice because it must be wrong, or exaggerating. I must be capable of better than this, I tell myself, but first I have to finish this. But this book has no name. I have flirted with so many, making midnight calls to old friends saying "maybe this one" and they say "sure, that could work, that could be great, that could be a wonderful name". And I wake up the next day and the name sounds ridiculous to me, desperate, cheap, shallow. And then a few days later the same name sounds fine, but unassuming, lukewarm, forgettable.

The last story is about many things. One of them is a little boy. I remember a piece of his dialogue that I cut, noticing the phantom space where it used to be. The phrase is one he blurts out, angry, confused, proud. The tiny voice on the back of my neck says this should be the name of the book. I let the pen rest for a moment.

The food comes out. The eggs are scrambled.

I eat quickly, wondering if this new name works, if this title will end like all of the others, with a combination of shame and regret. I write it on an empty page of my notebook, as an official reminder of the moment.

After the record session I call N and tell her the name. She says it is worth considering. She has learned to manage my excited calls from the street with a cool grace. She steadies the boat.
The sun is coming out just a little and the streets are wet. I yank my hat off, feeling the air on my skin. The people all look as sad as ever, shoving down the sidewalks, thwacking their boots in the slush as they climb old broken stairs.

I see a stray dog in an empty lot. He looks up at me, with big wet eyes.
"Hey." I say to him, my voice sounding unfamiliar.
He noses the air, wondering if I have some food for him.
"Papa on the Moon." I call out to him.
He dips his chin, crosses one foot over the other.

02 February 2015

to be known

I was walking West in Times Square, where Broadway slices across 42nd Street, veering left creating that sliver next to Sixth Avenue. There was a green light so I sped past her. My camera thumped in the bag on my side as I raked against tourist shoulders making my way. Her face was painted white, red lips, giant arched eyebrows. A police man stood in the gutter, staring into traffic. The woman was talking, jabbing her finger into the cool, wet air facing North. Her face fell, as if she could not speak any more. 

I stopped, as people shoved past me. 

Turning back, I slid the Leica out of my bag, took a few readings with my light meter trying not to be obvious. I held back, predicting what was the best angle to shoot from, what place in the gutter would be safe from buses sloshing past me. When I am shooting, I go into a sort of trance and have no idea that cars want to park where I am kneeling. I forget my own name in these moments. Just ratios, guessing whether I should expose for the brights or the shadows, pure instinct and years of close calls. 

I choose to put the sun behind me. I learned that if I stand right in front of people they do not see me as they squint into the distance. I am just a silhouette. I pull the camera up to focus, lining up the ghost marks and then back down so they think I am just waiting on a friend.

She starts back up and I click three times. People are completely ignoring her. She is not an actor or a performance artist. She is doing this for some private reason, some urgent plan. I wonder if she is here every day, or every Thursday, or once a year. I wonder if this is her first time, or if she does the same on different corners. I step to the right, now shooting her from a 3/4 angle. 

She looks at me. I produce a small nod, a quiet smile. If she wants me to stop, I will. She stares right at me, words sputtering from her that I can only guess are Japanese. She shrugs once, repositions her feet like a horse waiting to race. I see the shadow of a bus coming and I step to the right more. Now the sun is coming at me, and she is in silhouette. I dance in a slow arc around her while she speaks. I have shot at least 10 frames. Normally I get one, maybe three at most. I am convinced that if I have taken a good picture, it should have happened by now. I tuck the camera in my pocket, cold, compact, heavy. I look at her, offering a relaxed face, not sure what I can say.

Her eyes grow wide, she chews into those words. I cannot tell if she is repeating them or if it is an epic spontaneous monologue for the tourists and the neon, for the police horses and the dump trucks. I nod once, a little thank you and then I walk back across the street. I will go West to the lions in front of the library and turn downtown.

We climb into the little bus, the mashrutka. The floor is slick, spotted with ash and salt. The driver looks up at me, his smile flashing a row of gold teeth, his wrinkles, the little tufts of hair messy around his forehead making him look like a bit like Julius Caesar.
 “Dobrei (morning)” I tell him and he nods dramatically, as I drop three ten ruble coins into his hand. E turns into the seat, and I sit next to her. She rests her face against my giant coat. 
“It’s the happy guy.” She tells me, here eyes closed against the bright lights inside the bus as we lurch into the darkness, rolling slowly across speed bumps, stopping for old women to climb inside before we turn left on the main road.
“He likes us.” I tell her, but I think she does not hear me, taking a cat nap before we trudge to school in ten minutes.
We tiptoe across swaths of ice, broken, lumped into grotesque swirls that we almost fall on a few times. Then Kutuzovsky, the accordion player in the underpass, then saying goodbye in the school lobby. 

My head kicks back in the cold air. I feel light, awake.

There is a line for the mashrutka that will take me home. It pulls up, windows steamed over, round women in furs and tall boots climbing out. It is the same driver. He mumbles something to me, smiling as he turns the radio up. I give him another three ten ruble coins. “Let My People Go” is playing on the speakers, the old sounds bleeding and cracking through them.
I close my eyes and lean my head against the glass. I think of strangers, random people  and how they just want to be acknowledged, to be noticed. And then, I understand that I feel the same way, that I want to be known.

26 January 2015

I love you both

There was a grimy, cold day five years ago. My boots sucking in the grey sludge slathered across the streets, I took E from school. She was four then, and had just started to speak English. I was living in a tiny apartment, sleeping on a foldout couch. Her room was an alcove that we strung some christmas lights over. She told me we lived in a castle. I was learning to see what she saw, to take joy in the simple act of waking up with her in the same place, just the two of us and the silence of morning. 

People were coming to dinner, a new friend and her daughter, and a stranger. A woman that spoke English. That was all I knew. 

I put some chickpeas on to boil, roasted a pepper in the electric oven that always smelled like something was burning. I washed the plates and tried to make order in the lopsided kitchen. E sat at the wobbly table drawing girls with one eye. 

The sky grew black above the busy street. At one point the doorbell rang.

E is nine now, coming up on ten. She sits at the kitchen table, a strong one, a new one. She draws with pencils now, not magic markers. There are little curli-cue letters in her tight handwriting, both Russian and English. I am rolling out pasta. I do this on every anniversary of this day. Some pumpkin is growing soft in a small pot. The kitchen smells of sweetness and good eggs. 

N comes home, her cheeks red from the cold wind. I never remind her what day it is, a little game of chance to see if she remembers. Of course, she does and has played the same trick on me. She saunters into the kitchen, says something like "nichiwo sebya" (its not nothing). The Russian language works in the negative, even when the expression is a gentle compliment.

The water boils, salted and ready. I lower it, making the ravioli on the counter, some bigger some smaller, placing them carefully on a cookie sheet dusted with a shake of polenta grains to keep them from sticking. E has hidden the card behind the kitchen drapes. N sits and watches me cooking. We are making little jokes. E is sitting on her knees, hands waving around, all smiles and snorts, chirping half in Russian half in English.

And then the food is on the table, a fresh bottle of wine uncorked and splashing into my glass, a final grate of pecorino, a twist of black pepper and I make a toast to the day we met. E hands her the card and then N hands it to me. It says "I love you both" at the end. 

19 January 2015

breathing out (the actress)

E hovers next to me as I build the camera in silence. She watches as I spin an allen key to mount the base plate. I move in slow methodical arcs, next the long rods and the follow focus. Knobs turn once, just tight enough to hold as the shoulder mount slides on, as the front grips find their place. And then things are tightened all the way. The monitor swivels onto the threads.
"Can I help?" She asks.
I ask her for two batteries and she crawls under the desk to the chargers.
"If they are green?" She asks.
"Green means done." I tell her quietly.
She lines them up on the edge of the table, hands on hips as I begin to turn things on, adjusting angles, loosening the tripod head and making test movements.
"It looks good, Pop." She tells me.
I break my concentration for a moment, staring at her. She looks older today, her nose, her eyes, her features suddenly less round, all coming together, a closer preview of what she will look like as a teenager, as a young woman. 
"Time for a coffee." I announce, turning things off.
"I'll make it!" She says, skipping to the kitchen. 

I spread some empty papers on the kitchen table and begin making a shot list. The coffee is the color of a camel and tastes perfect. E sits next to me, making notes on her own paper after I make mine.
"So, you'll help me." I explain. "I can forget some things when I have so many shots to do."
She nods, all business.

Next we line up the props, the old phone, the transistor radio, the ashtray, the Soviet comics. 

"There is one thing that will be tricky -." I begin. "How to get one shot of her on a trolley bus."
E's eyes grow wide.
"How are we gonna do that?" She asks me.
"Really fast." I answer.
"Ok." She says, sighing once and looking at the things on the table.

The shoot goes well. The actress has a face that transforms, that shines and twists, curves and disappears each time I move the camera. I shoot her reflection, as she looks at herself in the mirror slowly putting on makeup. 

I smile once to myself, proud of the shot on the monitor and that it is lit by nothing but two cheap lights from Ikea. 
E cranes her neck, sees the image and gives me a look of quiet approval. She likes to hold the reflector for me, a giant disc that is white on one side and silver on the other. I know she does not really understand the finer points of it, but she likes to hold it. I cannot tell her it is doing very little to change the shot.

The actress is cold, the trolley buses are full of people. N told me this would happen, and that getting a half-empty one would be a challenge. I look at them all sitting in the car as I lean into the street, watching for the next bus to arrive, predicting how full it will be as it approaches. I step outside of myself, see a man standing and the air of his breath making little clouds, his hands shoved in his pockets, the camera with nothing attached to it now, waiting with the power on in the bag, the little lights on top glowing in the darkness.

And then a half-empty bus comes and I wave my hands. The actress gets on first. I have to buy a ticket and lose a good minute trying to press the little piece of paper into the turnstile the right way. She glides back to help me, in her heels and trench coat. I slide into a seat across the aisle from her, nodding and saying nothing just pointing at the red light to show that I am shooting already. She acts with perfect instincts, glancing behind her, adjusting the wig, looking out at the street whipping past her, the lights lurid and distant. I breathe out through my nose trying not to bounce around on the rough street. I move, get one more take, and then we are off the bus and E and N are pulling up in the car behind us. The heat is blasting and I am already yanking a pot onto the stove for pasta, cracking open a forgotten bottle of wine, looking at their faces, looking at myself with dirt on my knees and sauce on the edge of my shirt, knowing that shooting is like breathing out when done well.

12 January 2015

the enemy and the crocodile

We are crunching through early Saturday morning snow. E is not complaining, just holding my hand and looking up at me sometimes. The wait for the mashrutka is short and soon we are at the metro. I buy two tickets.
"You are gonna pay for me?" She asks.
"No." I tell her. "It is for the way back."
"Aaaaaah." She says, with a big nod.
We make our way to the last turnstile so they can let her through. A giant old woman in uniform asks for my card, and she slaps it against the light. E goes through, and then she slaps it again.
"So we did pay today." She tells me in a low voice.
"I guess they changed their minds." I answer.
"Maybe they think I am finally older!" She announces on the way down the escalator.

We shuttle through the stations, passing Red Square, Kurskaya, already on the other side of the city in fifteen minutes.
"Partizanskaya, four more stops." I say after a bit.
She nods again.
She knows.
"So, ashtray, old shoes, a radio." She says.
I agree.
"And what else?" She asks.
"Cartoons, comics, something like that." I say.
"Ok." She says, after adding this to the list.

The sun is almost coming out now. People are waddling through the grey slush and giant wads of brown snow in the road towards the entrance. We make our way past the mastroshkas and the fur hats, past the binoculars and lighters and sharp knives. Up the stairs and to the left, then another left.

The people sit at card tables, wobbling in the half-light with hot cups of tea in thin plastic cups resting against their chins. E looks quickly, noticing what I linger on. We exchange glances, making decisions without words. These will be props for a music video I am directing, fragments of loosely connected stories, a string of shaggy dogs and macguffins that should add up to something when it is done. But right now, it is just an idea and we are standing in the cold and I have not seen any comic books yet.

There is an ashtray, a low metal one decorated with Egyptian characters. We trade glances, she shrugs her shoulders. Maybe a yes.
"Skolka? (How much)" I ask the old man.
"Four hundred." He tells me and I drop my hand. This is how I show them they are asking too much and that I know they can make up crazy prices for foreigners. It is a way of scolding them.
We begin to walk away.
"French?" He asks, in English.
I shake my head no.
"Americanits." I say.
His eyes grow wide. He is acting strangely.
"The enemy." He says, in English.
I laugh nervously.
He looks at me fiercely, as if he is trying to think up something that will rattle me.
E pulls at my hand.
"We like this place, so many interesting things here." I say gently in my broken Russian, gesturing to the junk on the tables around us.
"You are tourists?" He asks in English.
He stares without blinking, his mouth half-open.
"Pop, let's go." E says, pulling on my hand.
We do walk away, and he calls after us. "Maybe three hundred?"

My stomach turns one twist.

I have not been out of the house much in the last weeks, as the ruble trips, tumbles, picks itself back up and then falls again.

There are American flags being used as doormats in shopping centers, people wiping their feet on them without a second thought. It all feels impossible to me, as I watch things slowly deteriorate, falling darker than I could imagine, blacker than black. I imagine what it will be like in a month here, in a year, how much farther the meat will shrink from the bones.

I begin to forget why we are here, wandering the tables, staring at faces, feeling more foreign than my first trip when I trotted back and forth across Red Square with a bag of cameras and wore a little black hat, when the militia stopped me all of the time asking to see my documents with an air of superiority and a half-salute.

There is a pair of rabbits, a husband and a wife that holds a giant carrot in her arms. They are hand-painted, made of tin. I ask the woman how much for them and I think she says three thousand and five hundred, and I decide that is too much. E looks up at me.
"They are sweet, aren't they." I tell her.
She nods.
"Did she say one thousand or three thousand?" I ask her as we walk away.
"I think one." She says.
We go back, and the woman shows me with her fingers, it was one thousand and five hundred. She smiles at me, her short blonde curls peeking from under her wool hat. I tell her we will take them and she wraps them carefully. I ask to take a picture of the golden rooster, to show N. She waves her hand as if to say I can take a picture of anything I want to.
I thank her, spasiba.
"Thank you." She says, slowly in bad English.

There is a table of Soviet cartoons, called Krokodil. The man sees me flipping through them. It is clear I am going to buy at least one. A friend stands next to him, with missing teeth and a big fur hat. He jabs a finger onto the one I select.
"One million sold." He says, in English.
I look for another one.
I find one with dark buildings, and rain drops like an old comic book from my childhood.
"This, two million copies." He adds.
I pay, watching them slide them into plastic bags from the supermarket.
I try to explain what I will use them for, but the words are beyond me.
E translates, explaining how we will use them.
I watch their eyebrows wiggling, a mixture of confusion and then satisfaction.
The seller takes my hand, squeezes it in his.
"Thank you." He says in English, quietly.

We find it all, an opal ashtray, a pair of beat up wingtips, a transistor radio. The bag thumps against me. E is getting cold. We make our way out, and down the road towards the metro and home.

The first man is behind us now, a strange face in a corner. I imagine he sells nothing today. I wonder if I will see him next time we are here and if he will remember us.

I wonder if he has already forgotten.