I miss the sound of crickets. And the breeze coming through the window late at night. And going outside and smoking a cigarette and looking up at the stars.
Now I can’t do the math. Can’t make sense of numbers. I’m the person who tries to please everyone, or I was that way once. Now I ignore everything I can. I keep trimming away at everything around me, hoping one day there won’t be anything left.
It’s a very gradual process.
“You know you can just turn off your cell phone?” someone tells me.
But I like it better my way, always have. It always has that dash of Carrollness about it. A little bit extreme, a little bit crazy. A little idealistic, a little naive.
That’s probably what people think, anyway.
I have a dream about Katelyn, who I probably haven’t spoken to in a decade. She got married a long time ago, and was living in St. Paul.
The last I heard, anyway.
I remember something she said to me once, about me being unrealistic. About how no one else would go along with it. About how impractical I was, about photography and the projects I wanted to do, the people I was willing to photograph, maybe a lack of orthodoxy or my reluctance to go about things the way they probably should have been done.
It seems strange to me to try and curtail what you really are, deep down. The gut instinct or impetus to go out and do something, raw and uncut, that pure genesis. I know we’re all getting older and trying to be better, but that doesn’t mean some things about us weren’t right from the start. I guess the hard part is figuring out what to keep alive and what to let die.
Outside in the street, I wear an N95 mask and a tee shirt and jeans. Late at night, I love the feeling of the cool just-before-summer air on my skin, my long wet hair growing longer, and the sound of Brooklyn winding up, winding up for a change of season.
I think about empty subway cars, and empty streets, and empty shelves in busy grocery stores and the news always the same, same, same. One could think the world was coming to an end, the way people seem to be collectively losing their minds.
And I think of things I can do to stay busy, until late at night when I open a window and listen to the sound of crickets, playing on repeat.
A box fan set up in my living room to chip away at that heat. A cocktail sweating on the butcher’s block while I cook dinner, alone in a lonely apartment. And I could swap out this chunk of time for so many others in my life, I realize, almost sadly, or sweetly. Years of living as a bachelor, years in Philadelphia while I was in school, and the times I lived with women, a parade of girlfriends who didn’t get me or maybe got me too well.
Maybe it’s who you are, the kind of person that keeps coming back to loney apartments. Walls bare from all the art you never hang there, but print out and send to other people. Furniture you never buy because there’s always a better use for your money – a friend who might need help or more photography equipment.
A mobius strip is a one-sided non-orientable surface. “One-sided non-orientable surface.” It has a kind of poetic beauty and horror to it. Something you can never make sense of, from now until forever, just going around and around and never going anywhere, never knowing anything, never able to get anyplace else. Something blank and immutable, as wide as the universe.
Nine days. Nine days of whatever. Nine days of sunshine through the blinds. Nine days of mindless errands and chores. Nine days of check-in phone calls. Nine days of thinking, of mulling things over in my head.
It looks like a circle, broken, and re-joined. But something is off, something is wrong. You’ll come back to the point you started from before you’ll be free from it.
No matter how old you get. No matter how much better you feel, or how highly you think of yourself. You are where you are, chasing your tail until the breakdown.
I stumble upon a Reliant K album from 2016 and listen to it, and think about how things continue long after you leave them behind. When I was 15 or 16, I would hang out with some Christian kids who turned me onto that band and some scripture.
I find a particular bible on a bookshelf in my mother’s house and take it back to New York with me. “Did you want any other translations?” my mother asks.
Just this one, I tell her. There’s an inscription inside from the friend who gave it to me.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
What impact words have made on man. Love, your friend.
(I pray God will reveal his Word.)
I think that’s a beautiful gift. Whether you believe or not, a gift of philosophy seems a very wholesome and pure thing. Those Christian kids all got older and probably found smarter ways to ease the pain, or explain it all away. Maybe they didn’t need those particular words anymore. And I can’t fault them for any of that. Everyone gets older, and starts to feel wiser, and maybe they’re still at it. Maybe there’s no real weight to any of those words. But I still find comfort there sometimes.
Some years ago I tried to reach out to Josh, but I guess he didn’t want to talk.
I feel like that a lot, too, these days.
Having slept away another day, I wake up at 5 and make dinner. Then I have a handful of drinks and edit some photos.
Later, I remove the neck strap from my 6D and replace it with the hand strap from my old Nikon. And I hold it up and feel the weight, the leather strap pulling at the back of my hand, feeling tight, feeling solid, and a warmth spreads from my wrist to my forearm and up into my chest.
“How would that even work?” Katelyn asks over the phone. Many years ago, I was laying in the grass in the backyard of my childhood home, looking up at stars. Maybe I was trying to convince her to let me photograph her, trying to show her what I could see ahead.
I had theories. Now I have guesses. Life has tempered some of my confidence away.
But there’s an unshakeable core that seems to stick around, infecting my thoughts still.
Pretty sure I can make it happen. Pretty sure if I find a way, the rest will just fall into place.
And if no one else sees it that way now, someday someone will.
it was always summer
It was always summer.
That’s the first thing I remember, every time it comes back inside my head. The heat and the sun, the green grass, mountains and lakes. An infinite, crushing, maddening sense of directionlessness.
There are two M83 albums I listened to that summer. The 2003 album Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, and Before The Dawn Heals Us, released in 2005. Every time I hear certain tracks from these albums, I go back to certain places: lakes, and creek beds, or fields or mountaintops.
Late nights driving around, doing nothing. Always with a camera. Straining to create something.
My parents angry, slipping in every barb and jab.
Making up excuses to see Sarah, always waiting for her to give me some sign, some little clue.
Driving up to Firetower one night with Kit and Hamel and setting some dead wood ablaze. And sitting there shooting the shit while it burned away.
Or sharing a joint in a dried up creek bed one afternoon, after having gone swimming, and the sun warming us up and drying away the cold water, and feeling drunk in the sunlight, and letting the marijuana climb inside our heads, until we couldn’t speak without laughing.
The memory of time not progressing, but standing still for a season, and nothing amounting to very much, and the desire, the ache, the derangement to be somewhere else, to get free.
To at last get free.
And it was always summer.
That’s the first thing I remember, every time it comes back inside my head.
another kind of life
Just a clot, nothing serious.
I am already on the train when I get the call. Jesse tells me vague things.
It didn’t happen to me.
The guy next to me talks on his cell phone the entire time.
Outside the sky changes from pale green to dull gray. The rain is forever coming down. The train moves slowly from one station to the next. Each small black sign heralds a new town, then shrinks from view.
Finally the towns run out. The train stops, and then begins moving backward, returning to the place it came from. Inside the hollow and empty train cars, the bare seats are dark and forlorn.
I stand in the rain and look at a train schedule. Columns of numbers meaning nothing. The pages of a novel, partially thrust into a jacket pocket, slowly becoming wet.
Eventually a new train comes and takes me the rest of the way.
At the station most of the other passengers seem to evaporate into thin air, or vanish into a handful of cars in the parking lot. In front of the station, a narrow bench sits beside a locked door. Salt has been dumped on the ground in a haphazard manner.
The soles of my sneakers dig into the salt and pierce the silence of the empty parking lot.
In the distance, where the cracked surface of an asphalt sea ends, a few black lines cross overhead. Beyond them, the remains of a hotel seem to stand defiantly against the onslaught of weeds, neglect, and the slow march of time itself.
To the left of the parking lot, a line of dead trees halfheartedly obscures a large wooden sign advertising topsoil. To the right, a highway meets the train tracks, where an occasional car comes to rest only for a moment, the crossing gate providing a slight hiccup in the grand scheme of things.
And the rain is forever coming down.
I mix rye with Coca Cola and throw in two maraschino cherries.
When we drive, empty and dead fields zip by the windows, forming an endless brown canvas.
In places long since put out of mind, I seem to be tracing old steps.
I don’t see much of anyone this time. Just my nieces and my little brother, his wife, and my mother.
Just the same, and all too soon, that out-of-place feeling comes sweeping in. I panic and wonder how quickly I can escape the feeling of not belonging, sinking back into my familiar under-a-rock routine. In New York, where a man can be mercifully swallowed up and forgotten, I can slip back into the featureless waves and eddies of lost souls and soulless people.
I read incessantly and sneak some M&Ms to my oldest niece who laughs when I whistle.
“I am very glad you’re here,” she says in almost a whisper.
In the morning I pour milk into sippy cups for her and her sister. Then we go into the playroom and color.
“I’ve noticed you haven’t been smoking,” my sister-in-law says.
Hearing those words, I immediately want to feel my lungs tighten beneath tobacco smoke.
“To be fair, man, it’s not like you even smoke a lot…you know, one after another…” Tom reassures me.
But to me it’s a familiar weight. Something I miss bearing down on me. Something I long to have eating away at me.
I get hugs and kisses from my nieces, and pound my little brother on the back.
The last glow of sunlight is disappearing into low, dark curves of horizon. Soon a train will come and take me back to another kind of place, another kind of life.
Finishing a short story by Haruki Murakami, I sink back into my seat, to mull things over and collect my thoughts.
In the window, the reflection of someone old and tired, someone pulled this way and that. Stretched too thin. And the feeling that there’s always some part of you, torn away and left behind. And that it will always be that way, until there’s nothing left to feel the loss.
a sharper picture
There are things I like, and things I can’t get enough of. And there are things I love, too.
There are things I don’t like, and things I hate. There are things I abhor with every fiber of my being.
And then there’s being factually incorrect about something. And that burrows under my skin and drives me insane.
I don’t like to admit it. I like it less when I’m hanging out with someone and they challenge me and I find out later that I was right.
I always find out later. I always let it go in the moment.
I run into Clive one night outside of the New Yorker. A big smile. A strong handshake. Speaking in Patois.
Vicky and CJ gone away, to ——.
“Of all da places, mahn,” Clive drawls in his deep, subterranean voice.
He tells me he’s heading to work. I tell him I’m heading home. We smile and part ways. I tell myself I need to call Vicky, but I keep putting it off.
I need to call a lot of people.
I keep putting things off.
On my work table, on top of my film scanner, there’s a lego set and two stuffed animals for my nieces. I look at them throughout the week and smile to myself.
Sometimes I get lost thinking about my own childhood. And the things you remember.
On Saturday afternoon I get a tooth pulled, though it’s not so much a tooth as the broken remains of a tooth.
“Well, it’s out.” Doctor Singh tells me. “Thank God,” I say, almost reflexively, unthinkingly.
Doctor Singh chuckles. On the tray beside the chair, there’s a tooth covered almost entirely in blood. Next to the cold steel tools, it’s almost beautiful. I lament not having a camera. I almost think to ask him, to plead with him, or bribe him…if he could only take a photo and email it to me.
Why didn’t I bring my camera? In my pocket is my flip phone. In another pocket a copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. I look at the tooth and think it’s beautiful. After a while he comes back and hands me painkillers and antibiotics, then I pay and leave.
When I was younger I had everything figured out.
I don’t think it was ever a bad plan, really. I just think I lost focus as I got older, and stopped sticking to my guns. I started listening to other people, and thinking maybe they were onto something.
But now I feel like even if they are, or were, it’s not for me. A really simple, basic, elementary goal. A really personal kind of code. A very idealistic and maybe unrealistic outlook. But if the shoe fits.
Late at night, I lay on my back, and twist my head into my pillow and look out the window behind my bed. And I think, I could just pay someone to be the kind of person I want to meet, and tell myself it’s the real thing.
I keep telling people I’m going to call them back.
I keep telling people I haven’t met the right girl yet.
And that I quit smoking and drinking.
I tell myself I’m getting better every day. But that’s bullshit. I’m just hurting myself less. That’s not really making me better.
When I find out I’m wrong about something, I pull my head down my collar and into my chest.
When I find out I’m mistaken about something, I might spend five minutes or an hour berating myself in my head. It’s important to really rake yourself over the coals here. You have to do it so that it almost actually hurts.
When you’re feeling worthless in your ignorance, you know you’ve done a good job. Then you tell yourself that this will never happen again. And you say it over and over. And you dig down deep and pull that horrible, black, hopeless feeling back out of your soul and hold it in front of your eyes.
“No one’s perfect,” someone tells me.
“Yeah, not with that attitude,” I shoot back.
The key is to be the pain you don’t want. Because it takes strength to make you smarter.
I keep thinking about addiction. The way Natasha Filipovna rejected the Prince for fear of ruining him.
And every time I hear that Alkaline Trio song, I just want to smoke a whole pack of unfiltered Camels. Leaning against a brick wall in Manhattan, and watching the lights of cars and buildings blurring away.
People always turn to alcohol or heavier drugs. They get really fuzzy so they can lose focus and forget some pain.
I want a sharper picture. I want to feel every little bit of sorrow and despair. I want to go over it like it’s a topographical map. Every little line and detail. I want to burn it into my brain.
I want to know why and how it is that I’m so fucked up from other peoples’ perspective.
Sometimes I think the only way to make myself whole is to carve out a little more.
It’s the thought that there’s an unknowable timer on all of this, on every person you meet or face you see, in a glance on a packed train or crowded street. And kids grow up into people and raise their own little people in turn. And no one is doing shit. No one is doing anything. And you smile and laugh and you feel like you could give away everything and go live in a cave, for what it’s all worth. For what it all means.
And why am I singled out? Why am I set apart, left out, on the other side of a divide? Time is running out and I can’t fix what I am.
Sometimes I can feel it clawing at my heart. And I grow panicked and want to yell, I want to grab people by the shoulders and shake them awake.
But they are awake. I’m just crazy.
And there are people I ought to call back, but probably won’t.
There’s shit I should admit to, and be truthful about.
Strings left loose, promises unkept, and confessions silently sealed away.
But like most of the things I’ve probably felt at one point or another in life, it was all probably one-sided, and there’s no use in telling anyone anything.
I end up leaving the apartment at eight-oh-six, even though I woke up earlier than usual.
I walk blearily down the street, hang a right on Nostrand, and walk down to the A. I can’t really think. It’s a struggle to untangle my headphones and avoid the trash on the sidewalk, spilling out into the street. A mild 23 degrees but I barely feel it.
Ahead of me, a mother and father walk with their children, four abreast.
I dart past, but still arrive at a packed train station. The word DELAY flashes overhead, and I lose myself in music and a book.
I jump on the nearly empty car, forgetting to think, it would seem. The reek of piss hits my nose. At one end of the car a man is curled up in a fetal position, bare feet rubbing against one another. Further down the car, at the other end, a man and woman huddled beneath hooded coats appear to be sleeping.
So I stand in the middle of the subway car and try to read and not breath through my nose.
And after a few pages, the idea appears: to slip $10 or $20 into the man’s pocket. It just appears. Small. Like a drop of water. Something condensing in my brain. Give that person some small amount of money. But I try to lose myself in my book.
I glance down when the train reaches high street. He might be crazy. Who wouldn’t be? I’m not normal and I’m not even homeless. Yet.
One night drinking with Garrett. “I think I gave that guy money because I feel like one day it’s going to be me,” he confides. At that point where the drink starts to lap at a precipice of honesty jutting out into deep water.
But I keep trying to lose myself in my book.
He might be crazy. What if he makes a scene. What if you come off looking stupid, and everyone’s staring at you, the idiot who tried to give a crazy person money on the A Train when it was reeking of piss?
My brain has a million reasons not to go over there, not to squeeze among the other people, the man standing with his back to the homeless man.
Later on, when I’m at work drinking some tea and trying to make sense of my computer screen, I think about buying a bouquet of flowers and sending them to someone.
“Did you take the employee survey?” She asks. Not making conversation, just doing her job, I know.
And since the first day we met, I felt like there was this thing, awkward and tense between us, but something that could be something else. And I have that kind of gut instinct sometimes, and it’s usually correct.
I tell her I’m going to take the survey. I resolve not to. But a day later, harangued by emails from HR, the department head, and other company drones, I make a half-hearted attempt to care enough to form an opinion about where I work.
“It’s a job. It pays the bills.” I write in the first box. Then I erase it and leave it blank.
I think about buying a bouquet of flowers. Purple roses. White roses? Red? No, purple, I think. It’s gotta be purple.
Every time I see you,
I forget everything
For a moment.
I see her so infrequently. I might go a month or two without seeing her at all. And then when we speak again, casually, like I’m asking about the weather, how did you like the flowers?
But a person can tell himself all kinds of lies. And I know that.
And sitting there, trying to get my brain to work, thinking about bouquets and surveys and homeless people, it comes, like waves. And the tide pulls me out and into soft sand sliding away beneath me.
I’ve been a coward. In everything I’ve ever done. And everything done cowardly, done cheaply and badly. Once real, once feeling and genuine, stepping out with every crazy idea, and never giving a damn. Giving away things of no consequence others held dear and coveted, living in wealth or poverty depending upon the week. Loving when possible, not above hate, but never indifferent.
And here you are, telling yourself you’re some kind of person.
But you’re just a shade or a ghost, something flitting from place to place, without any shred of substance. A fake person. An impostor.
And you go around making other people think you’re something. And if they can see right through your bullshit, you must look like a fool. And if they don’t and believe you out of kindness, you’re a liar.
My heart has been hurting lately. Not my heart, my chest.
A tinge of pain, at times just a dull ache, and then again a sharper, stabbing shard of white hot fire.
I make a fist and hit myself in the chest a few times.
I smile, because I’ve been smiling a lot more lately.
I miss a cigarette, but I’ve been free from that for almost two months now. Gotta keep going. Get better.
You’re still a terrible excuse for a human being, but everyone likes you a lot better when you’re not smelling of cigarettes.
Or a million other things that could be unpleasant or pitiful about a person.
But I feel like it’s all the same thing.
All sinners. Taking trains and cabs or driving or walking. Holding our nose up like we’re better than someone else. And maybe we’re all trying to get our brains to work, and thinking we should make some change, but still trapped inside our heads about how to best go about it. So we find our distractions. We go about our jobs and we try to make stands against proxy injustices. Invent romances that don’t exist, wear ourselves out running around and doing mental gymnastics, and we go home satisfied.
But nothing’s changed, and we wake up again and do it all over.
I make a fist and hit myself in the chest a few times.
I listen to music and try to get lost in my book.
“I feel like one day it’s going to be me.”
I can feel it in my brain, the pressure building up, the weight like a block of lead, bearing down on my thoughts. And my fingers itch and my right leg bobs up and down in fits of energy. Irritability creeps into my thoughts and my speech. I’m talking out loud to myself, criticizing myself out loud for past mistakes.
I can feel it in my brain, getting ready to snap.
Something long held, something wrong and rotten.
Some diseased idea that I might be anyone or anything.
And I smile to myself.
but few words
I want to tell you, now.
To make up for never telling you then.
The way I repent now.
For the kind of person I used to be.
And go through days looking for a way to make my spirit whole. But I’m coming around to the idea that there’s no one waiting at the gate. It’s just me again.
And I keep trying to chip away at the most substantial things. I think of ways to get rid of things, and friends.
The only reason I don’t sever ties with my family, because I’m weak or I love them.
Everyone else seems to boil away into vapor.
It’s funny what you can accomplish without trying, or caring.
But who am I anyway? I can feel it in my hand sometimes, the muscles going slack, like just before darkness and sleep.
I could probably lose my cell phone. Get a simple phone plan that only accepts calls. Live on rice and water. Fast four days out of the week. Read more books.
Try to think in verse.
I could probably lose the people I talk to, who talk back out of convenience, but don’t really care.
Hell, I don’t really care either.
It just feels like something is being let go.
I think about how I don’t talk to anyone at work, besides my manager, and maybe one or two other people that require talking to.
The Dao says “To use but few words is natural.”
After food, water, clothing, and shelter, what do you need? A bit of conversation? Some basic distractions, meaningless banter?
It seems like the harder a conversation is to come by, the more precious it is held.
Over years, and growing more golden with age, becoming a cherished thing you only once knew.
Wherever they go, wherever they’ve been, and whatever might have come to pass, I wish them the very best.
Under your skin there’s an animal that wants out. Something basic and mean. But something pure and honest, too. Held in check by shreds of morality and scraps of ethics. All the shit they put in your head to program you.
Split me right down the middle, divide me up into the good and the bad.
Feel like you’re drowning in the everyday barrage, the sharp buzzing distraction of emails, text messages, chit chat, and bitter memories. Try to block it out with music and art and hear or see nothing. But people still prying their way back through the shutters.
“People were doing it for ages before cell phones,” someone says. “If you get lost, you’ll probably figure it out.”
Makes you wonder how much you could get rid of.
Late at night, eyes closed and waiting for sleep to come creeping in, I think of living alone in the wilderness. Far from any town.
A gun to hunt.
Pen and paper to write.
Not much else.
A bank account to see me dead. Whatever comes after, let someone else bear witness.
Hard drive woes force me to stumble upon a forgotten photo, a picture taken maybe eight years ago.
A car parked by the side of the road at night. A street lamp supernova, a midnight sunburst. In the muddy fields of north central Pennsylvania, another chain link fence and facade looks like Angkor Wat.
Just another photograph, something instinctual, something bestial and thoughtless. And soon discarded, in favor of other photos that night and in the days after – ones more immediately gratifying. Ones looking better, more aesthetically pleasing.
A lot of people aspire to take a pretty picture.
But some lives are like one outtake after another, a tapestry played out on a screen inside your head, like a silent movie, and you keep going ‘round and ‘round, and getting no younger.
Sometimes I ask myself: what is it I really want to tell people?
But the truth is, I spend most days in silence, and I don’t even mind that. The truth is, I kind of enjoy having nothing to say. To quote the Dao, “To use but few words is natural.”
And if that’s who I am, nothing to say, nothing to voice, then what kind of message could I possibly have?
I don’t want it spelled out anymore. I don’t want the dichotomy, the binary, of black and white. I like my shades of gray. And the feeling that everything is the way it is, and I’ve always been as much a part of the problem as I will ever be part of a solution.
A message. I hate it when people ask for that. When they want me to refer to myself as something important, so I can have a message. There ain’t no message, just pain, and words I’m trying to get out, to exorcise that pain. The rest is meaningless, because there is no meaning. I’m crazy and the people who read or listen along are probably crazy, too.
I always felt like the King of Rejects when I was younger. Exceptional in my differences, that left me apart from almost everyone, except people like myself. Now I feel like I’m always on the outside, and everyone else is on the other side of the glass. I know I’m not that distant, but sometimes I fool myself into thinking it all the same.
Now I know, nothing is exceptional.
I watch Sami walk into view almost by mistake. And she doesn’t see me. I barely realize it’s her before she’s gone.
For a split second, I think about calling out and greeting her. And even then, it’s less of a thought and more of a reflex, welling up from my chest.
But I close my mouth, and watch in silence as she walks in front of me, and disappears into a parking lot.
And I go to a deli and grab coffee so I can wake up and stop being stupid.
And on the way to work, I think about sending her flowers and writing her poetry.
And then I resolve to double down and continue to fast, continue to trim away, continue to find every excuse not to talk, and not to return phone calls, and not remember to keep in touch, and drift away from everyone I can.
Fold away into thin air.
Probably forgotten now, anyway – about loving and poetry. I don’t know anything about those things anymore. All that’s left is silence.
Just one Outtake Thought after another, footpaths leading nowhere, and one potential future after another, rejected in favor of that old, familiar, inescapable road.
It’s a certain kind of crazy that sees you happier with losing more and keeping less.
And it’s a certain kind of photograph that stands the test of time, shorn of its surroundings, and standing alone, and still meaning something unspoken and unspeakable.
Can you feel it?
SCENE PLAYING OUT
It’s just a scene playing out.
Over and over again.
You can feel your brain coming out of your skull. You can feel your jokes landing flat. You can feel the impasse, the general failure to communicate.
I wish someone had prepared me. “Prepare to be alone. Prepare to be unable to relate to other people. Prepare to live in solitude. Prepare to be rare, and different. Prepare to be gifted or retarded – it’s the same thing here. Prepare to be set apart.”
That’s what it feels like. A stranger even to people I think I know. Still too weird to make it work. I’m always lost.
I hate crowds. They make my skin crawl. Lines and busy restaurants. All the people pushed up against one another. Or worse, glued to phones.
Like vegetables. Like statues, or dolls. Empty and bereft of life.
It’s a feeling. It’s just a scene playing out. A train sliding by. Too quick to be caught. Speeding on to the next station.
It’s a feeling. Means nothing. Adds up to zero. Let it go.
People want to leave their mark. But that’s not art. The cavity your body leaves in reality is your legacy. An empty apartment. Faded photos of a person who never comes around. A name you only dust off in remembrance.
I don’t like it, the lines. The sewer water they freeze into ice cubes, then serve up with your drink so you can taste it there, too.
“What are you drinking?”
Stupid boring people always want to get fucked up. I find myself there whether I want to or not. Sometimes it’s good to feel out of it and sober. Maybe it’s a chemical imbalance. Not enough calcium or something. Maybe I’m depressed. Maybe tonight is the night.
Sometimes I think, maybe I’m not even here. And I take photos to prove to myself that I exist. Long after I’ve taken them, they seem to mean something else.
But the events that pass by still feel like nothing. Just a scene playing out. Something underpinning your being, Your existence, the thing that assures you: you are.
Can’t change it. Embrace emptiness. And cultivate it.
Unbalanced. Crazy and lonely. Sick, and over time, getting sicker. Faithless, til finding faith in Nothing. The dim flickering hope that at the end of a road awaits some reward.
Artful people make Art that looks like Art, to be sold as Art. Meanwhile artists make real shit.
If something would be beautiful, crass and cruel folks scuttle by and pluck it up and put it on a high shelf.
But I want to find the people who look at it and drink it in for a moment, before moving on. Or who wake in the night, recalling a prior vision. But who left it there, untouched, unplucked, knowing it isn’t something to be owned.
I want to find people who still have souls. Who still think, and think they can be better, if only practicing a little restraint.
I want to find the people who know the way, but never call it.
Why do you have a camera? She asks.
“He always has a camera.” Someone tells her.
I always have a camera, I tell myself.
The things that make you unique aren’t named. They’re something asleep in the dark, deep inside your chest. Or locked away inside your head. Bringing them up, they seem to evaporate into thin air, appearing lost. But you never had the words to bring them up in the first place.
You’re a dash or an ellipse. Negative space between two black lines.
But it’s the emptiness of a vessel that makes it of use.
For a minute I get lost.
In the humdrum everyday sluggish flow of time. Over the course of minutes. Staring into space. A dusty and sun-bleached “Be Back Soon” sign on the front door of my mind.
Every once in a while you get this thing under your skin. A bit of stone or wood. Shrapnel or splinters. And this thing goads you into a rash decision.
But a decision so steeped in crazy, there’s no room left for regret. It’s as much a result of pure animalistic instinct as it is the result of pondered and drawn out thought.
If you told me ten months ago what I would be doing today, I’d be skeptical.
Every year it’s the same thing, I just have no clue how I came to where I am. And then I push that further and further, and think about the last decade, and the two decades before that. And all together, that’s my life so far.
But it’s absolutely unhinged and crazy, and it erases any fear I might have, because I know, it’s all going somewhere strange and new.
I got a feeling, that 2020 is going to be the best year yet.
New job, more money in the bank, big apartment, new ideas, new photo projects, and getting better every day.
A lighting kit in my living room. Photo books and a stack of prints on my work table.
A smile from a stranger on the sidewalk outside my apartment door. Growing my hair and beard out.
Plans to see my family soon, very soon.
The feeling that some major player, some monumental plot device, or the sudden cut to black lurks right around the corner. The feeling that I’m drawing something out, something beautiful, something that could one day mean something.
Keep going back up against it.
Over and over again, struggling.
Knowing some people are buried beneath the deluge of years.
Parts of myself now cordoned off, or placed on a high shelf.
But the narrative continues.
Sick as ever, can’t stop.
Living life like poetry, drinking in images, and bleeding out my sorrows.
A Window Backwards
And that’s the main reason I don’t really use it. Slow and kludgy. Inept. A poor tool.
I got a quote to repair it once.
Like a lot of other things, I never followed through with it.
There’s always something else you’re focused on, than the thing at hand. The things directly in front of you.
Always busy looking into them. Never really understanding them on the surface.
But if a camera can have a soul, if a machine can feel something, if it can have a temperament or a character, proclivities and justifications.
I can’t remember when I even bought that camera. When it came to me. But I don’t remember when I came to other people, either. Suddenly, things were just a certain way. And feeling like they’d always been as such.
One winter, I think back in 2010. Before Kit and I drove to California.
In ten years, there are other cameras. Some of them I gave away – the Holga to my little brother, the Leica/Minolta to my older brother. My father’s Pentax ME Super and Olympus PEN FT still sit on a shelf above my bed.
Sometimes, I dust them off and take them out for a few frames. And the tiny moments of past years are building up inside.
I still prefer 35 mm. It’s more practical, more plain, more atmospheric. Even if it isn’t as deep or detailed.
Sprockets and metal canisters. And 4×6 prints from Walmart.
Like digital, but slightly slower. And with more soul.
A window backwards, to minutes and slivers of moments rediscovered.
“Does your cousin have any allergies?” I ask.
Garrett looks at me for a moment, his eyes digging into my face and mouth, searching for some trace of a punchline.
“Um, carrots. And eggplant.” The briefest of pauses.
“And some nuts.”
My face cracks into a huge grin. “You’re too easy man, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” I tell him.
“What? You’re gonna say ‘but not deez nuts’, right?” His voice drips with a comical irritation. It grows in pitch, sharp and pointed towards me.
“I would have told him ’your words, not mine’” Tom tells me, laughing.
He asks if Garrett is coming to dinner. “I mean, if he is, you want me to clean up around the apartment, bro?”
Maybe…if Olivia comes too…then let’s roll out the red carpet.
But I’d be too ashamed if a woman came by. Four seats in the entire apartment, the accumulated mismatched ensemble of countless residents, coming and going over the years.
I keep telling myself that I’ll buy furniture. But then other things pop up. And those other things seem to deserve more attention and money.
Maybe when you die, you realize it. You realize, “I died”. And everything else after that is just fighting sleep. Maybe you could spend five years fighting that feeling, the feeling of being right on the edge, and drifting off.
Other times, the feeling of just too much to do before the lights go out.
Days of work, and days of errands, duties, obligations. Days of commitments, engagements, and obsessions.
Late nights listening to sad songs. Smoking and drinking in the moonlight. Alone. All along.
Everyone is the victim in a love story.
Leaves have fallen. Snow comes now. On the other side, the green tidings of spring and another year.
Conversations of Getting Better, conversations that mean nothing. Tell a joke to laugh, to slip away from the seriousness for a minute. But that’s what people always come back to. The progressive march towards a towering gate, torches blazing there on either side. On the arch above, the word: Success.
I feel sorry for so many people, but mostly my friends and lovers. And the people I know who might be interesting if they weren’t so busy trying to gain an inch of ground.
Miss Rich by a few minutes, maybe. Already gone to physical therapy. An empty bed and a window looking down on cold streets.
“Tell him Carroll stopped by,” I instruct the nurse, after she asks if I want to leave a message.
She peers over the top of her glasses as she writes it down, incorrectly spelling it.
“C-A-R-R-O-L-L” I spell it out for a customer on the phone.
“Like the masculine spelling…” the man says.
For some reason, I can’t sleep. Not ready yet, maybe. Not slipping off the edge of consciousness. Not sinking into the dark.
My eyelids just won’t close.
I think, and the thoughts dredge up emotions, and from there it all goes to Hell in a handbasket.
A breadcrumb trail, back to a place full of creaking floorboards and cobwebbed clocks.
It’s my own laughter that I can hear.
It’s what you do that comes back to hurt you.
Soaking in the feeling, of another book coming to an end. The flutter of pages, the whisper of a closed cover, the silence of finality.
Now she’s asking if you’ve got a girlfriend.
“Tell her I just haven’t met the right one yet.”
I should be working on something. Instead, I’m writing this. But maybe that’s okay. Things on the brain. My head aching. Two days straight without the usual cocktail.
Maybe I should get back to learning Japanese. Maybe I should learn to play the banjo, like I’ve wanted to, for so long.
Maybe I should take better photos and write better sentences.
But I keep on doing this Same Old Thing.
I think about telling Garrett to give me Olivia’s address so I can ship her a print.
But he’d just tell me to ask her for it myself. But I can’t be trusted to not say something horribly stupid. Can’t be trusted with phone numbers, either, anymore. Just gotta keep away from other people, or avoid direct communication at all costs.
I’m all eaten up inside with rotting loneliness. And I’m sick in my gait and speech, and the way I look and talk to other people.
If I were an animal, I would be avoided by my own species at this point. But I’m a person, so I have to keep up a front of normalcy.
I keep thinking about asking. Or taking.
But it would all end up the same way.
It would start out great, and go on for a while. Til everything crashed and burned. Til it bought the farm.
Deep down, I know I’m not anyone, really. A pit stop at best. Maybe a derelict building on a lonesome stretch of desert highway. Where no one stops anymore. Except the hopelessly lost types. Until they find their way again, and keep on moving.
And why not? The well has run dry.
Revolving around in my mind, tumbling around over and over, manipulated, is the idea that one day I might amount to something.
But only wishful thinking. Incorrigible, fucked up. A “fixer-upper” as one of my exes put it.
Just something out there on the periphery.
And maybe it would be better like that, just that kind of person, always. And feeling the pain, and turning it over in your soul and your bones, like a coin dancing along knuckles. And sticking close to the beautiful things that slowly kill you and draw you into Hell.
Who will wail for you in death? Will you hear it from oblivion?
What gets left behind? A string of images, hopefully, that carry a message. But the words that would frame them in context carry away on wind, and lose themselves in the ether.
A real pretty face. A laugh that melts ice. Eyes that dance. A body I want to touch and hold and caress. Late at night until the dawn sky eats the darkness away. And the warmth of her body against mine. The smell of her hair. The taste of salt and sweat on her skin.
Things I could know.
Ugly and twisted, strange and different. Nothing normal, nothing right. Nothing to give, nothing to lend. No reason for anyone anywhere to desire my company.
In the night I stare up at curtains of rain forever coming down. And I poison myself a little more, for the final painful payoff. And I think about what it means. And what worth one could draw from it. But all there remains is pain, and sorrow, and the unwavering hurt that I wear like a second skin.
It doesn’t matter.
For my day job, which pays the bills.
For my apartment, where I stay up late cooking, and sleep in on the mornings.
For the sunshine that comes through my windows, bright and warm.
For the cold and the snow and the wind on my scalp.
For the quilt my mother made for me.
For Tom, who keeps me company.
For Kit and his 1 am phone calls from Pittsburgh.
For Garrett, who makes me want to be a better version of myself.
For my family members, who seem to love me.
For my nieces, who make me smile when I see them.
For bourbon, mixed with coke and a lemon.
For the sound of rain.
For a cigarette in the morning before work.
For a cigarette in the evening after work.
For memories of people I am no longer close to.
For memories of women I used to love.
For memories of childhood.
For the silhouette of a bird, flying high above skyscrapers and landing in the eaves of churches.
For the words of prophets carved into subway seats.
For sundowns, and moonrises.
For a good joke.
I think the second rail pushes me over the edge. But the first one has me feeling nice. Energy pours out of my eyes, ears, mouth, and fingertips. I grab my camera and tell Amanda I need to photograph her.
Something stirs itself, like an animal awaking from sleep. Its back shaking and bristling, arching up with life, claws spreading out and digging in to flesh.
Like a gun. BANG!
Suddenly everything seems laid out in front of you, in black and white.
Time seems more fleeting. What if it’s running out? What if it’s already close to the end?
Maybe I’m crazy, or more crazy than normal. Maybe I’m sliding down that slope to whatever is at the bottom. It seems like a lot could be swept away – the bullshit, the conventions, the niceties. Just tell them what you want. Just dig your claws into flesh.
So to speak.
I wonder if I’ve been sleeping for a long time. Years and years. I can’t remember. I feel like I’m in a dream, or that I was, and now I’ve only recently woken up.
Everything feels like a distraction, or a waste. Everything. The little detours, the outings, the gatherings, the socializing, the small talk, even the relationships. Just delve down to the heart of the matter, what you want, someone to stand in front of a camera for fifteen minutes or five years.
That’s it, that’s all. They can have what they want, or take it in kind. Money, love, time, attention. It’s all currency. It’s all secondary. It’s all a write-off in the end.
When I think about what Alysia taught me, it was that I like women with loose morals. I have very few myself, and they seem more like a rough framework. Concrete rules or principles? Sure. But mostly non-religious. A slight bent towards Buddhism. An intellectual curiousity towards Judaism and Christianity. A mental resonance with Daoism.
But I’m still savage and animalistic and carnal underneath the skin. A photo just takes that to another level. It turns something sensual and blasphemous into a form of visual sculpture. More permanent than poetry. More ephemeral than prose.
Kick my brain down the stairs when I’m fed up with it. Who even am I? What gives me the balls to talk about anything to anyone?
Just a guy.
With a camera. With words. Loving art. Worshiping idols. Under a strange sun. Searching for a tribe of people like myself.
The older I get, the louder I want to scream. The more I seem to be pushing up against the limits of my skull. Burn money. Throw out possessions. Speak in tongues. Keeping doing it. Keep doing it with your whole body.
Until the end.
It’s always good to hold them.
Like you’re young again, being held too, being cared-for back.
Like you aren’t alone, or doomed to live like that.
Almost had a child once. Almost became a father.
Sometimes you stand back from something and watch it pass you by, and there’s another you there – a you that might have come to be.
But it’s just a mirage, something that only might have been. Something that never really was.
“You would be good father,” Mira tells me over the phone.
I stop in my walk home to light a cigarette.
“Trust me, I have feeling,” she says.
She’s not the only one.
They tell me I look like I have baby fever.
But I just like being the uncle. I like pretending to be a dinosaur and chasing my nieces around. Or snuggling up on a Saturday morning to watch cartoons.
I like laying on the floor and drawing, or building with legos. And I like showing them a trick or showing them how to do something.
I think about the two people I ever saw myself marrying. I think about the two people I Iever saw myself having children with.
Then I think about where the train is headed. Sometimes, it feels like you’ve already missed your stop.
Sinking back into the feeling. Into that gnawing anxiety.
No one’s dumb enough or crazy enough to go along with that.
I take photos.
I remember Heather’s voice.
I ask my little brother how she’s been. She’s good. She’d love to hear from me sometime.
But too much has happened. Even if she’s family. She’s seen me in horrible ways.
I like to wonder what it might have been like.
How it might have been to grow up normal, or how it might have been to be a dad.
Sometimes, deep down, I feel like a monster.
But there’s a hope or a desire that no matter how reprehensible or fucked up or hopeless you are, you could still create something beautiful.
Under black end-of-October skies, I step out. Fresh cuts in my head from the cutting-it-off-again. Staring up at the branches moving in the night. Inhale and exhale.
Inch a little closer to oblivion.
Waiting for days to come and go. Waiting for the clock to roll over, again.
Waiting for the thing to come down. For the world to stop. For a touch, a word, a sign.
Already swallowed whole.
It’s all fake.
I don’t want anything to do with that.
Need another drink, some rum and some ginger beer.
Thinking about seeing my family in another week or so. Two cigarettes left in the pack. Tomorrow I’ll buy more.
“You were doing good with quitting,” a friend tries to tell me.
But quitting wasn’t doing good with me.
Gotta punish the thing you are, still.
Late at night, just before the sleep comes. I look out the window at apartments like mine where other people are living their lives.
I should edit her photos. I should give her some to post to Instagram. But I don’t want anyone to know I took them. I hate myself for having taken them. It seems like there’s nothing there. Just someone smiling back.
It’s all a joke. Photograph me this way, doing this thing, saying nothing.
Need to give them money, pay a model. No one wants to get out there and create art. People just want basic shit for their instagram or social media.
People just want a pretty lie. But an ulgy truth is better, if it has to be ugly. Just let it be true.
Let it be real.
People still telling me to make money at it. I could make money at anything.
When I pick up a camera, I want to create something good with it. Not a pretty picture, not a photograph someone pays a lot of money for.
Something I can’t live without. Something that changes a person’s life, just looking at it.
A mandala. A revelation. A sunburst, or life, or death.
But that’s self-important bullshit. I am not that kind of person. Just want to clean away the clutter. Live and love simply. Every day I step out, a camera over one arm and my mind purged of pre-conceptions.
“Come do weddings,” my little brother says. And there was a time when I wanted the two of us to work together – him posing people and me slipping like an eel through crowds to find that zen shot.
But now, I think, I am shirking the commercial, and the money, and the greed that drives for more. I’m obsessed, still, with photography. But on my own crooked terms, in my own bizarre way. What good is clarity without the madness? Deep down I know I’m not a straightlaced professional type. I’m a shoot-from-the-hip while cursing-a-blue-streak kind of guy.
Deeply, sincerely unhinged and harmless, but hell-bent on divining something moving from the mundane.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter.
No one will be knocking at my door. Truth be told, I’m not all that good. Even I know it.
And I’m just another jackass with a camera.
2 am phone calls
Up late aching for that 2 am phone call.
You know the kind.
Yearning with a heart you didn’t know you still had.
I yearn with my teeth clenched through strange dreams.
I rail against the knowing that we never got close enough.
Now everything feels too late, and too far along. But maybe there’s a little crazy left in the tank.
What would you do to become unstuck? In that moment.
“Maybe you should go make someone else uncomfortable,” a friend tells me.
And I can feel something break down in that moment.
In reflections in windows, I see it too.
“He’s ugly,” she says. But a soulless kind of ulgy. A hopeless kind of ugly.
A concrete knowing, something never coming undone. Scathed and raw. Arching your back in the moonlight. Gross and misshapen.
I could scream in the light of a full moon.
Scream until your throat bleeds.
Does it even matter? What’s the difference now, between the good life you live and the sinful existence you want? What good is virtue if it’s a struggle for you?
Wouldn’t it be better to be real and rotten?
No one’s even looking.
Let em try it.
Like a gun to the head.
Some people don’t know. How close it really is to the surface.
Some things move in perpetual shadow.
I can feel my teeth aching for something to sink into. I can feel my lungs aching for something to soak up. I can feel my fingers itching for someone to caress. I can feel my eyes aching for lines to follow, contrast to discern, colors to bleed.
I can feel that 2 am phone call. I can feel silence coming down like storm clouds. I can feel something turning away in my chest.
Steeped in night. It seeps into my pores and mixes with the sweat oozing out, into the night air.
The lights. The sound.
Moving slowly, as though in a dream. Like when I was young, and I would wade into the surf.
Wandering around in circles that spell out nothing.
And then realizing, deep down, that nothing has changed. That you’re still the same.
On the train, the eyes like mine that look back. No words, no nothing.
I can lean my head back against the metal and feel every shudder and shake.
It’s just pain and then you die.
Until then, you’ll go on. Following it.
Something glimpsed through a door, a key hole, a window.
Something never spoken.
Something held secret.
Something held dear.
And never uttered.
Walking Alone In The Dark
I like walking alone in the dark. I like being the thing that goes bump in the night.
I like being that person who slipped away, who disappeared into thin air. I like the thought of never being heard or seen again. I like slipping quietly, calmly, into the unknown.
A coworker tells me he wants to quit smoking. “Marijuana,” I tell him.
“Just replace one thing with another?” he asks, dryly.
Just replace one thing with another. Places, people, memories, your job, answers to yes/no questions…
It’s really easy to replace one thing with another. Just make sure they have the same weight.
That’s all people ever really miss – the weight of something.
My back hurts from carrying a camera all over the city. And I’ve been getting uglier.
Feeling something, I shave my head again. And then I wash the hair away under cold water, and still feel the skin burn.
I like walking alone in the dark.
The same way I like coming home, and putting on music, and cooking and cleaning, or washing dishes.
There’s a three foot version of myself curled up with his arms hugging his legs to his chest, sitting on the countertop, watching me. Another version of me, but he wants to know why.
It’s been six weeks since I quit smoking cigarettes. I drink more water now and cook all but one meal per week. In the mornings, I lift for 30 minutes before work. I don’t speak unless spoken to. I’m reading again, voraciously, and trying to keep up with writing and photography, when I’m not working on little pet projects.
I stand more than I sit when taking the subway to and from Manhattan.
And soon I can hopefully find a way to volunteer an extra day somewhere.
I no longer think about suicide. I no longer feel hopeless.
And I’m sinking, down, into an abyss. And I can feel it happening. And I know it’s actually happening.
There’s nowhere left to hurry to. No one left to go looking for. Nothing left to worry about.
Like being swept out to sea, beyond sight of the shoreline. No chance of ever being found.
Every minute of every day, you’re becoming something better. But it still feels like you’re waiting for something to arrive, something to come down like manna, or lightning.
A caretaker for an empty chapter, waiting to begin, and become full.
And looking out at night, at cold dark buildings congealed into masses of brick, metal, and gloom, with warm yellow eyes. Right before the walls of sleep close in.
Hoping something is coming down.
Every breath is a yawn.
In my sleep I have dreams about sleeping.
I’ll catch someone looking to see if I’m looking. Fuck I hate games.
I know I’m an adult because I’m worried about not having enough time left to take care of stuff before I buy the farm.
I admit that I sometimes think about settling down and trying the wife-and-kids thing.
I can’t even imagine that, Kit says breathlessly between pulls.
But it’s strange to me too.
I guess a part of me – a very small part – doesn’t want to miss out. And I’m not convinced it’s all roses, but the way the light might hit from time to time seems pretty enough.
Stretched too thin. I get way too fucking high most nights. Feeling like I’ve let myself go.
Catching an unkempt reflection in the grimy window of a subway car. That night I shave my head again, for the first time in many months.
Then I wake up early and lift weights.
Lose a little more, I think to myself. Carved and hacked to perfection. Sleeping away my days in a cloud of smoke.
Calm up there.
A guy I know who lives in the county and makes bank as a doctor complains about delays.
If I delayed Very Specific Medicine to my patients, do you think they’d like it?
It’s a great business model, I tell him. When they finally get it, they’ll be more than happy to pay for it.
They’d be dead!
So what do you care? They’re not sick anymore.
True, he admits.
Underground beneath Lower Manhattan, I’ll trade glances with a stranger.
Like tunnel scenery, something beautiful glimpsed in the window between the quickest two seconds. An ephemeral twist of the neck, a body that twitches and contorts like smoke.
Shouting body language.
Gone forever. No knowing. In a sea of 8,600,000 people.
And others passing through, for a week or a day. A few hours of overlap.
“So many walks of life,” she says.
“There’s only one walk of life,” I want to shoot back. But I stop talking to her after that. And let her sink into memory. Blotted and burned.
Michaela was always better than me. The kind of person who seemed to be too beautiful for her surroundings. You just knew she belonged with someone important, or rich, or, well, just better.
Bitter and scathed when it wasn’t you. And it hardened your heart against some things, after that.
Her older sister probably thought more of me than she did. I wonder where Rachel is now.
Things Left Behind
Time to write, I’ll tell myself.
Because the first step is to state it. Even where there’s nothing to write – or, at least, when it feels that way.
Time to write, I’ll tell myself. And then I’ll crack my knuckles and place my fingertips on Home Row.
They feel natural there – the same way they feel natural when holding a camera.
But your mind plays tricks on you.
Even when you want to write.
On the train, I fall asleep, and my sentences trail off, swallowed by sleep. And the gentle, soothing rockabye of the A Train.
The apartment is empty, but for the things that have been left behind. I clean the kitchen and vape some oil. Then cook a big dinner like my parents used to when I was a kid.
After eating, I go outside and stand at the curb, where a stain – red paint or blood – looks like a mouth laughing. I smoke a cigarette and think about it.
Nails like question marks are driven into the wall.
And the longer I go on staring, the more there seem to be.
I think about leaving New York for a weekend. Flying somewhere new. But I don’t want to see anyone.
I don’t want to go anywhere, or do anything.
I want to revel in it, feel it. Like it used to feel, to feel something.
More than a place, a time in your life. To go back there for a month and maybe reset something. Something hardening in your arteries. Something calcifying deep inside you. Money and self destruction and a lack of art for the sake of doing something different.
Somewhere in my older brother’s house, there is a photo of him with his wife, taken on a beach in North Carolina, as they walk away from the ocean. Their backs are turned but their faces are turned in towards one another, talking.
Their dogs, Bear and Diego, run between them.
The photo looks grainy and pixelated up close, because it was downloaded as a low-res .jpeg file.
Sometime after downloading it and printing it, they cut the photo to take out my ex-girlfriend Victoria, who was in the right-half of the frame.
Something about that just seems fucked up and wrong.
Like, you wanted something so badly…this idyllic-looking kind of life. So you LITERALLY cut someone else out of the picture so it could be more perfect for you.
Thoreau said that the perception of beauty is a moral test.
It’s depressing to watch people fail that test. Or maybe not fail it. I don’t know if there’s a pass-fail system to a moral test. I think you just end up realizing you have different morals than other people around you. And that can be kind of depressing.
“I don’t believe in Evil, Carroll.” Rich tells me with a serious look on his face, standing at the counter while my coworkers wrap up a sale with a buster.
“I really don’t. Some people do shitty things to each other. But I don’t think they’re Evil because of that. People do what they have to do because of their current circumstances. But what they’re doing right now? They’re doing that because there is something that is forcing them to do that, right now.”
I think about my circumstances, then. I think about not being that kind of person.
After work, I linger longer on the street outside, smoking a cigarette in the soft, summer night.
“I’m in Chicago now,” Vicky tells me.
I tell her I deleted her number so I wouldn’t bother her too much.
“Don’t do that again,” she tells me.
On the floor there’s a satin sleep mask. And I wonder who it belonged to.
And then I think about a pair of handcuffs I used to have.
Probably with an ex-girlfriend now.
Another thing that got left behind, or cut out of the picture.
Late at night, I leave the door to my room open, and look out across the tiled floor, through an empty apartment.
I think about the places I used to live. The towns I used to belong to. The streets I used to walk.
Late at night, when the world slept.
Everything breaks down and falls apart in the end. Everything gets assimilated. Everything transmutes into something else.
People get cut out of photos. And things get left behind, or nailed in deep, poisoning thoughts. And you ain’t ever gonna stop being different from the people around you, because it’s in your brain at this point.
No going back, no getting better or coming to your senses.
Like this, always.
Erykah’s been featured on Vogue.com. And that may not be as prestigious as being featured in print. And yet, it’s still something. No small feat.
If I call her up now, she’ll make a date to let me photograph her. But sometime in the moments that occur before that one moment, she’ll get a hold of me to push it off.
And I’m not bitter about that.
I met her for the first time in Prospect Park. That was back in 2014. I made the mistake of using an old vintage lens with my Nikon, and completely fucked up her photos.
We’d meet up in Bed-Stuy, or around Midtown after we both got off work. Out to Fort Greene or up to Chelsea. She worked as a stylist at Barney’s. People would always stop and compliment her wardrobe while we were shooting. Guys would stop and check her out, asking for her number.
Each time, the classiest, politest, most soul-shattering decline.
Erykah had a gravity about her. It could draw in the world and crack it like an egg.
A well of grace, overflowing from the tiniest gesture or movement. Like a rare animal, or a painting sprung to life. Erykah was the kind of person who embodied a sense of art. Erykah could make you believe there was ever such a thing, ever so elusive and ever so unquantifiable, as beauty.
She was kind, too. Giving me a second chance after botching our first shoot.
There was a time we shot on her roof. One afternoon, late in July. A bank of clouds rolling by and shading us from the occasional flood of sunlight. We had done two of three outfits. She wanted to get a chunk of work out of the way.
A yellow bathing suit with white patterned pants.
And the wind kicked up, high over the other rooftops. And Erykah must have felt cold.
Maybe I told her she was beautiful, maybe not. I can’t remember, but obviously, she was.
She offered to have dinner with me and ordered a pizza.
We talked in between bites. Then she disappeared to change, and came back wearing something sexy.
Which really isn’t saying much, because Erykah could make anything sexy. I don’t even remember what it looked like. I remember it being black, and there was a sheer fabric to it.
But as soon as I realized the sheer fabric – as soon as that piece of information coalesced in my brain and I realized what she was wearing – my eyes immediately darted to her neck. After that, I didn’t stop looking at her face, and I no longer have a concrete memory of the outfit she was wearing.
I excused myself, like an royal asshole, and left.
It’s not beauty that scares you.
It’s never the thing itself that scares you. But what it means. What it represents.
You see it every day in photos and music and literature. It’s that moment when the thing itself ripples the surface of your every-day, gray-hued reality.
And then you see it for what it is – for what it means.
And all the things it can do.
All the ways it can torture you and destroy you. All the ways it can swallow you up whole.
And Heaven help you should it one day disappear.
But all the thinking in the world won’t save you from something like that. Not once it ripples the surface.
It will draw you in. It will crack you like an egg.
It’s intoxicating. The way she’ll answer. Like you’re the most exciting person in the world. The only person she really needs and the only one she could ever want.
And not in an affected way. Not in some casual, callous, flirty way.
Knowing full well nothing will ever work out to that point – just to take a damn photograph. But swept up, you go along with it.
But under street lamps in Midtown, or in the glow of fading Brooklyn sunshine, she will tell me something stopped her from making it that day.
And she will tell me she’s sorry. And that we should reschedule.
She leaned in one day. Maybe I leaned in too. We were looking at a photo I had just taken of her. Down in DUMBO.
It was a kind of energy. Maybe we both felt it. Misplaced? I don’t know.
“You have to have a basic modicum of professionalism,” I tell a friend over a beer. “And you know, if you ever go down that road, that you proceed with the utmost caution.”
But it still feels stupid. And I still feel stupid.
Anyway, something stopped us. Pulled up short. Maybe it’s better.
Forgot to walk her home. On the way down into the subway, to catch the A Train, the sight of a g-string as her shirt rode up on her back.
Walked her home the next time. Then stood on the LIRR platform.
Unable to turn away. Looking at her silhouette in a window, the way I used to look at the moon.
Something distant and reserved for someone else. Something else.
Some other kind of person.
Met her boyfriend on some occasions, and the nicest guy. Chike worked for NBC or something like that. He’d stop by where we were shooting, give me a “What’s up?” and peck Erykah’s cheek.
He’d always make an excuse to disappear – something he had to do, something taking up his time.
But somewhere on a roll of 35 mm film – probably still inside my Olympus Pen FT, is a photograph I took of the both of them.
Taken one day on the edge of Bed-Stuy, where Erykah used to live.
I could reach out. I could take a shot. Every other time might have been the last time. Before a phone call, before a text or an email.
Have your pride, I think to myself. Stop bothering this person.
But maybe there’s something small you give back. That someone beautiful gets something from the beholder.
I go outside, stoned, and smoke a cigarette. And the smoke climbs up over trees and buildings, and into the night.
And in that moment, I feel something. And I draw it in. And crack it like an egg.
My head is fucking killing me. Like a drill is beating and boring through my skull.
Every time I look, I forget to breath. I forget to taste or touch or smell. Even my ears hear the wrong things.
Always the way it is. I never really loved anything that didn’t scare me.
“She’s like talent. And you don’t talk to the talent,” Gabby reminds me.
But I used to. When I thought I was hot shit. Back in Hickville. But out here in the mix, it’s a different story.
It’s a constant struggle to divine the real from the fake. From the fake that looks increasingly like the real. And it’s all the same feeling now.
It’s impossible to tell the difference.
Murky like my head. Only the pain is sharp.
I think about Amanda and how much I still want to photograph her. “I’m not happy with the way I look right now,” she confides.
But she looks like a real person. Still beautiful, but real, too. Like a soul opened up and laid bare. The kind of thing you wear on your sleeves in your youth. The kind of clarity you’re still seeking.
But maybe it’s just something left over from before. Something that refuses to fade or disappear, and continues to live, despite every effort to snuff it out.
Anyway, the weight of years keep adding up.
If I forget to take the drugs for a day. I’ll wall myself off and try to avoid talking to anyone.
Even when I’m working. Quick and to the point. Get them square and then get them out.
Summer is come and beautiful women wear less.
My roommates prepare to move out.
“We have a friend who’s looking to find an apartment.”
I shut them down right away. I’ll live with one of my friends instead. Or a stranger I can stand.
It’s all the same thing.
Day in and day out a left-of-center throbbing aching creeping pain. Invading my thoughts. Cutting them off short, a train plunging headlong over a cliff and into a gorge below.
When everyone is gone, when it’s completely empty – I like that. There’s a kind of loneliness you only see in a reflection. A kind of peace that only inhabits an empty house. A kind of beauty in the darkest black.
She looks like a dream. Like a doll.
I can turn up the music and make the pain flow outward, into new corners and compartments. Tingeing memories with a dark ink.
What is one pain compared to another?
“Some people buy heroin,” a customer tells me. “But buying gear has got to be a better choice, right?” Then he lists every piece of gear he’s purchased for his camera.
Like a fucking chimp at a typewriter. Eventually mediocrity will overwhelm.
But you’ll never save the world with that attitude. And it’s one little insignificant insect that proves the dissenter and changes the hive mind.
But there’s nothing to compel.
On a hot night in Brooklyn. Another holiday spent working. Another night spent waiting for tomorrow.
And the pain leaves, like the last shades of velvet dark before a new dawn.
Four and Five Letter Words
I wake up bleeding.
I guess that’s the best way to begin. It’s important to know where your narrator is coming from. It’s important to know that he has the experience or credentials to deserve your time and attention.
You’ve got to know he actually has some skin in the game.
Anyway, I wake up bleeding. And it makes me wonder how much longer I can go on doing what I’m doing. Feeling what I’m feeling. And preaching what I’m preaching.
I take a shower and go to the fridge to retrieve the Red Bull I left there a few hours ago.
Maybe it’s cancer. The romantic in me wants to die young.
The coward in me wants to live forever.
After that, nothing.
I arrived too late to the party. Without an invite.
Everyone is concerned with being corporate and making money. Getting rich and comfortable and fat.
Everyone is concerned with not affecting the bottom line. They’ll move out to the suburbs and play house.
Nothing left to do but trash the place.
But I think it’s already trashed.
I go into Crown Fried Chicken to grab some food. In front of me, four deaf guys sign and pantomime their order.
The other patrons look at them, then back to me.
Which one is more of a curiosity?
After I grab my food, I walk down the street towards home, past the bars where all the young white hipsters congregate. With tea lights wavering in the breeze that comes slipping through the open doors.
Bars with names like Wolf and Knave. Four-or-five-letter-words that mean nothing.
But that’s where they go.
Down past the school and playground, across the street to the corner store, and past the laundromat where the proprietor tells me to come back in three days.
Some people just don’t want your business.
Others can’t stop from falling over themselves to get it. My coworkers worship money and can’t wait to make more of it.
I think, it’s better to go out and make something. Margins and profits will keep you alive. But after basic comforts comes a need to do something else, something worthwhile.
“You know when I offer to buy you a beer, I mean that I will pay for it and I won’t ever hold that over your head. You know that right?”
He says he does.
And I don’t want to be an enabler. I’m just starved for company.
And I could go out and try to meet someone. I could be on social media. Or hook up with someone on Tinder.
I could go out and try to find a friend, at least.
Or hang out in a bar with a four-or-five-letter-name like everyone else.
But that’s not me.
“Why don’t you do people’s portraits for money?” my clueless sister asks, circa 2012. “People need senior portraits and graduation photos. You could make good money at that.”
There’s no such thing as good money. Only sufficient funds to enable insane endeavors.
After that, nothing.
It could happen again, an underground art scene where one medium influences the next in real time, raw and uncut, the wellspring of opuses – maybe somewhere in Europe, like Berlin. But not New York. Not anymore.
The sun is brilliant on Saturday morning, as I climb steps out of Port Authority to walk to 6th Avenue.
People in costumes pause in their heating-up suits, peeking out from under giant oversized cartoon heads.
Someone, mistaking my camera for that of a tourist, panhandles for a photograph.
I keep walking.
“It doesn’t matter if you drink or you don’t drink,” I tell my friend, who fears he might be an alcoholic. “Because you’re still you.”
New York is just a place on a map. And there’s a lot of people here, and you figure someone in that mix has to be crazy enough to work with you, or crazy enough to see what you see.
It’s not the kind of place you choose for making your stand.
But the truth is, I’ve always been the way I am. And I was taking photographs in basements and barns and alleys long before I made it to New York.
And the party is already emptying out. The people you might have known have all gone corporate.
They’re all at the bar with a four-or-five-letter sign on the door.
And you’re the last one left.
Now trash this place.
All the Fun in the World
“Fun? What the fuck is that?”
It’s 9 pm on a Wednesday – my Friday night. Standing at the counter of my local deli, buying a bottle of iced tea. The guy ahead of me jokes with the clerk.
I crack up, laughing.
Fun? What the fuck is that?
My boss makes a comment about having someone else write his idea of a press release.
I keep trying to tell him what a press release is. But it gets lost like so many other ideas and words and phrases.
I go outside and smoke a cigarette. The sooner I die from lung cancer, the sooner I’ll be rid of this particular kind of Hell.
“I’ll take a raincheck on the beer,” Gabby says.
For a moment, I think that’s probably a good idea. But then I think, it doesn’t really matter. I keep making more money. And then I find new ways to save money.
Then I keep trying to find new ways to spend it.
It doesn’t fucking matter.
Fun? What the fuck is that?
He’s just saying what everyone else is thinking. When does it start getting fun?
A matter of years, probably. The more you become desensitized to it. On the train I speed through something I have to write, slipping deeper and deeper into the text I’m crafting.
Someone stands in front of me trying to get my attention.
Money. Food. Bullshit. It’s always something. I don’t care. I can’t care. The part of me that cares, that could help, has been surgically removed. I don’t give a flying fuck anymore. I’m trying not to be that myself. And I could probably spare something. But I won’t. I’m tired of feeling like bits and pieces are being chewed and gnawed off the bone.
There’s nothing left after. You help people and then they help themselves.
But they ain’t coming back to pull you out of the fire.
There’s a girl by the door, her head leaning on her arm. Drifting off. With the buck and roll of a subway car deep beneath Brooklyn. The very image of exhaustion.
I feel compelled to photograph it. But it doesn’t matter. Just another image. Just another person you’ll never see again, never know, a placid surface disturbed for a moment, rippling outward, soon returning to stillness.
Everything returning to stillness.
Walking slowly through valleys in the night. Descending to a slower pace.
Above me, the moon through the trees seems like the last vestige of another day. A period at the end of a sentence. A letter after the fact.
The longer I go on not talking to anyone, the better it feels. The more familiar it becomes.
“I feel like we can spend some time together. We can sit down like old friends and play a game of chess. That’s how comfortable I am with it.”
He’s talking about loneliness.
I can understand the sentiment.
It’s just a way of looking at it.
“You’re very positive-minded,” my boss says. “You always have a positive spin for something.”
That’s me. Mister Positivity.
“What are you going to do tonight?” a coworker asks.
“Put my head through a wall?” I muse, sluggishly.
I think about the bible Josh Deal gave to me once as a gift. And he wrote something inside the cover. One of my ex girlfriends and one of my friends used to laugh when I’d read it. I guess it’s cooler to be an Atheist.
But it doesn’t matter.
There’s nothing true to what I say, anyway. Everything’s just words strung along. Hoping, in the end, it all comes to a place that makes more sense.
Hoping, in the end, it all comes to a place free of fear and want and greed and cruelty and pain and longing.
I’ll come like a dog.
Because I love hearing my name. Because I’ll jump at a reason.
Maybe any reason.
And I love the feeling of escape. The slipping away. The vanishing into the thin air.
And knowing I’ve left a Carroll-shaped hole in that old place.