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Not me, her

In 1987, I found myself trying to write about a high school girlfriend that had been molested by her father when she was a child. I was 19 years old, struggling to find my way through a screenwriting assignment about delivering character. The idea was to describe messy young love between two Sid and Nancy want-to-be's. But that failed, as I could not stomach oversimplifying her complicated past, events that shaped her life as a 16 year old with a mohawk, a smart mouth, a lingering stare. I understood that I had to start at the very beginning.

No one wanted to hear the story. When it was my turn to read in class, it even came to be that some of the other students asked to stand in the hallway before they heard another description of what happened in that lonely little house in the middle of nowhere. I was trying, and failing, and trying again to get things right, to explain how this happened, how it could happen to this girl, how this man found his way to acts of selfishness and d…

Use what you have


The news came just before the sun, a double uppercut, a southpaw crackle of skin and bone. It sinks in as the coffee brews, as the baby wakes. There is a giant, invisible bell ringing that no one can hear. The wind slashes through the trees. I fumble into the day.

People are talking about a new age of paranoia, about fear and great walls to keep strangers out. The wanted and the unwanted, the upper crust and the soft underbelly, the chosen few and the naive masses. No one saw this coming. No one took it as seriously as they should have.

This is how change happens - when you least expect it.


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There is a round little woman who sits on a bench near a playground. She has a small notepad and writes in it constantly. There are no friends nodding hello to her, no children she is with. Later, she wanders the parking lots writing down license plate numbers. She approaches strangers, maybe with a child asleep in a stroller asking something odd, mistaking a boy for a girl. The people walk fast as she approaches after this, eyes aside, then forward and moving far from her. She can be seen for days doing this, and there is no good reason for any of it.


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I am out on a Sunday afternoon, the sun smacking hard against the sidewalk. It is over 100 degrees, and people are moving in hordes to the air-conditioned shopping mall. There are two trolley buses  ahead of me, somehow resembling resting elephants in my imagination. I snap a picture with the Leica, wondering why I even took it. As I pass the open doors, a woman in a uniform leans out.
"What are you taking pictures of?" She asks, arching an eyebrow and dead serious.
My shoulders shrug.
"Trolley buses." I say. "Life, people, faces, streets."
She stares are me hard and another woman leans in from behind her.
I point at the camera.
"This shoots film, not digital." I explain. "I am an artist."
Her head shakes once, then again.
She turns and looks at the other woman over her shoulder.
They eye me, as if to suggest I should not do this any more.
They wave me off.
I did not realize that the hair had gone up on my arms, that a lump had grown in my throat as I dealt with them, all smiles and shrugs. It was a stupid thing to do, I tell myself. I need to be smarter, more careful.

I walk in the shade, looking for a special brand of baby food V likes. They are out of it in one market, so I walk all the way down to the river to try the next one. The lump in my throat shrinks, and I have one of those formal conversations people have with themselves.
"This is not a free country, stop pretending you can do whatever you want to. It is childish."
"I know, I know. I have a family. I need to act more responsibly. But sometimes I forget that something as innocent as a picture of an empty bus is a problem."
"There are workers everywhere, not all of them are legal, not all of them are in the right place. People get fired for no reason here, why scare them? Why make them feel like they are being spied on, documented, recorded?"
"I was just thinking of myself. I am tired of pictures of the backs of old women's heads. I wanted to do something different today."
"You can make art with anything. Use what you have."

The next market is also out of the baby food. I still have two others to try, closer to home. I think of that woman making notes on the playground, how no one tells her to back off. It isn't fair, I mumble. But that's the lesson. Only children believe that the world is a fair place. The rest of us should know better.





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