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.
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.
I can remember the exact moment it happened, and how it felt in that moment. I was walking up a crowded stairwell at some lecture hall, jammed up against all my fellow students, camera over one shoulder and a book in my left hand. Up, up, up, maybe two or three floors to my next class. And something started welling up inside me, from deep inside my stomach, a weight or a pain that rose up into my chest and began clawing at my throat.
My head grew warm. First my temples, then my forehead. Suddenly my brain was on fire. My feet were tired. My chest ached. I could feel something pressing down on me, something flat and cold and lifeless.
I tried to shake it off. I went to class anyway. Maybe fifteen minutes later, I stood up and walked out. My instructor, who was nice, left the classroom after me and asked me to come back, asked me if something wasn’t wrong.
I turned back, maybe ten or twelve feet from her, and just looked at her. I wanted to speak, I wanted to say something, I wanted to put it into words so I could understand it myself. But I couldn’t think of any words that could describe what was wrong.
Years later it came to me that I felt like I was being swallowed up by a black hole at the end of a conveyor belt. That there was some great, terrible machine inside that black hole. Every idiot and asshole I was in school with couldn’t wait to go headlong into that black hole.
I kept thinking, me too. But something happened.
I didn’t want to be a product. Something processed and molded and shaped. And all to conform to the world on the other side of that black hole machine. Not better or smarter, not wiser or more complete. Just a brainwashed dolt, indebted and weak and dependent.
For me, it happened there, in college. I guess different people probably find it in different places, and they probably never see it head-on, but askance. Glimpsed out of the corner of their eye. And I imagine some people are able to write it off, and they get swallowed up and destroyed by it. And they never know.
But there have to be others, too, who see it on the drive home from work, or feel it lurking in the corner of a bedroom at 3 am. Who encounter it on a date in their thirties, or who catch sight of it young and never explain it away.
I still can’t explain to people how I feel about the machine. I can’t articulate it, and I don’t think many people can really recognize that kind of insanity or revulsion that comes over me when I think about it.
But it also occurs to me that I’ve never passed through a fire.
And that makes me wonder if everything I say isn’t just bullshit.
And then I read what I’ve written and wonder if everything a person says isn’t bullshit,
regardless of what a person has or hasn’t been through.
That you can’t listen to anyone at all.
So I stay up late, not sleeping, but thinking about what it would be like to die. And I think about Camus’ Stranger, and how he thought it didn’t matter if you died today or in twenty years because you were still going to die someday.
And I think about how it might happen, if it might happen gradually over a period of days or if I might blink out of existence when my heart or brain suddenly stops. But then I think of it happening somewhere far away, in a place I can’t yet even conceive of.
I think about getting inked. And I think about breaking all contact with friends. But I’m nearly there, anyway. I already talk to practically no one.
Just family, and my roommate.
Salma calls me when I’m cooking dinner and talks and talks.
I finish the jerk seasoning and soak three pork chops in it, letting the molasses and rum wash over and work its way into the meat. I wash dishes to the sound of Chet Baker and Salma running on. Reasons to stay quarantined and this country sucks and she can’t wait to leave.
Everyone eventually goes away. It isn’t a tragedy. If you want something, or a taste of something, fucking take it or don’t.
I’ll call you and we’ll do a photo session, she tells me. Such a treat. Why waste another minute? Save money, buy photo gear. Save money, buy computer parts. Save money, buy airfare. Save money, fund projects that matter.
But I still pretend to care, and I tell her I can’t receive texts. She suggests calling me when Corona ends. I tell her that’s a great idea. Then I save her number in my contacts list. Why? So I can avoid her calls better in the future?
It’s funny that the more bitter you become, the more intact your pride seems.
I am sick of it. I don’t want to talk and hang out and drink. I don’t want to bullshit and catch up on something better left behind me.
I don’t want to be stuck in the same shit, year after year, until I die. Stuck in a compromised, dull existence filled with shallow entertainment and soullessness and hyped news and advertisements and boring jobs and being surrounded by people, always people, who aren’t going out of their skulls, who seem resigned to it all, like it ain’t so bad, like it’s not sucking every drop of sanity out of your head and leaving you starving and lonely and crazy, like it’s not gnawing away at your heart and mind.
Like we aren’t all thirsting for a better kind of life. Or just a better kind of living.
I can feel it now, every day, the overwhelming sensation that all of this is bullshit, that none of it means anything, that you might as well just do whatever the fuck you want, whether it’s ignoring people or calling them up like you’re some sort of pal or building churches and hospitals for people who have nothing.
But when I look at my own life, I feel like I’ve wasted so much of it doing nothing of consequence, and nothing of much purpose, at least to any greater good.
I get paid to make corporations more money. I retain a weak hold on my sanity by taking photos of the things that I photograph. If I go out with people, it feels like walking along a shore. We have running conversations, and the pieces I remember are broken shells.
But if I disappeared tomorrow, there would be no deficit. And that makes me wonder if I really exist.
I think I’ll go away for a while and get lost and forgotten.
I think it will do me some good.
I think I may be able to find some reason to live, some way to make the world a better place, to put in some work and do my share, and come out a better person on the other side.
The world seems to be losing its mind.
Around 11 pm, I go out and buy some junk food. Tearing myself away from my father’s old slides is Hell.
Outside, it’s empty and quiet. I put earphones in to drown out nothing. Walk to the end of the block and think about how I want to smoke.
I won’t buy a facemask.
Even if I get it, I’ll just stay inside until I recover or die from it. Seems like the best course of action. I tell my little brother as much, but I don’t tell my older brother or my mother. They don’t need to know how I feel about all this.
However slim the possibility, once you think about it, you begin to move a lot faster, and with greater purpose.
My problem is that I’ve always been a romantic, I’m always daydreaming about dying some tragic death.
But that probably won’t happen. In the meantime, it’s spurred me on to complete this next project, even while reconsidering some things related to my photography. And now I’ve come to wonder at why I talk to certain people, or spend time doing things I don’t really want to do…taking photographs I don’t necessarily want to take, because I long ago lost a sense of direction that only now seems to be on the verge of re-materializing.
“Some really crazy shit happened to me one year,” Steph confides. “Three of my best friends died in really fucked up ways, each within a few months of one another.”
I haven’t seen him since, but I’m sure he’s still doing his thing.
Sometimes you’re human and you behave in a way calculated to hurt people around you because you’re hurt, and you want someone else to feel it too. But despite that, you still love the person.
“So I decided to start living life on my own terms and going after what I want – you know, what I need.” He takes a drag on a cigarette outside the Cock and Bull. In my memory, it’s raining.
It’s important to be honest with yourself. Sometimes I want to resent the people who ask me to photograph some events or things for them.
It’s a little insulting.
I wonder how I should take it? Most of the time I feel like I’m just a passenger. I’m not the one driving, I’m just enjoying the crazy ride. So I go along with shit I don’t really care for. And I wind up somewhere strange and new, shaking my head. But I can never account for anything I’ve done, and most people can’t relate to that.
Most people have plans.
Important Plans that have required much thought, and a lot of money, and years shaved off that unknown block of time. It’s shrinking and melting away every day, every hour, every minute.
That thought sends a chill down my spine. How much longer do I have left? The cost of everything suddenly seems too high. A job, a relationship, obligations. These things are gnawing away at what little time might be left. And none of it is worth what it gives you.
Except maybe the relationship thing. That can be good.
In my bookcase is a photo album with prints of an ex girlfriend. Sometimes I wonder if I might finish it some day, if we might get back together and I could resume taking photographs where I left off. But I have a better chance of getting sick and dying at 31. Besides, I heard she’s getting married soon, and we stopped talking some time ago.
But that’s not a bad thing. I told her when we split up – she deserves someone better than me.
Scanning some of my father’s slides, I find a photograph of him as a very young man. Though there’s no date, it must have been before he turned 30. His hair is swept to one side. A woman has her face pressed up to his and she’s smiling. There’s a nervous, apprehensive look on his face, not one that’s unhappy, but one with a sense of reserve to it, maybe a tinge of fear that the photograph won’t turn out just right.
He looks just like me.
Now he’s buried in Virginia.
There are things I remember that I can’t tell anyone about. If I tell anyone about it, things might fall apart. Plus, no one wants to hear someone speak ill of family.
I work all day from home, and without the usual flood of office chit-chat and annoying people yacking around my desk, I find myself being more productive.
All day I think of calling someone when I finish at 6 PM. But when the time comes, I feel better not making a phone call, and cooking dinner alone, and going to sleep. I actually do feel better, the same way I feel better when I lift weights or take care of some chore I’ve been putting off for days. I feel like I’m making progress.
Every time I pick up that phone, I think: They could have called, but they didn’t. What does that say about you?
And back down the phone goes, and no one ever calls, except family, to tell me they’re worried about something, or if it’s my little brother, to nerd out over computer parts.
But it’s good to be alone, good to go through a period of thirst. Good to know that things run out and dry up and disappear forever. It’s good to know that time is running out, that things aren’t getting better, that the whole shebang – the whole world or just your conscious perception of it – is slowly going off the rails.
It makes you want to make progress. It makes you want to be someone better.
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.
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?
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.
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.
In your head, in your head.
The problem with writing is that it always has a definite beginning and end.
In this way it feels a poor tool to capture the feeling of consciousness. Being finite. Being set in stone.
Still some times feel that way. Like you’re hardened and stuck in place.
No going back, and everything before just a murky primordial past.
The future no clearer.
Going full tilt, the momentum carrying you off the tracks. Where will you go?
Go out with Garrett on his birthday, somehow ending up there early, talking to Olivia.
All night, somehow I find the sense not to ask her.
In the dark, swimming. And wanting to go back, through all those lost years, to a time when I was younger, and more handsome. Back to a time when things might have meant more.
When I was still crazy, but tempered by the best intentions.
Swimming at night, in a pool, naked with two girls I went to highschool with.
A strange feeling now, to be adrift in a sea of people like this. Washed and lapped with new waters.
But still always the same person beneath skin. Scathed and raw, letting the light bleed in. What am I doing here and why am I staying?
In the darkness, a million points of isolated light washing over me. But every star is dead when the light finally arrives.
Under any veneer of sociability, gregariousness, or even general warmth, there’s still a rotten, unreclaimable core.
Under every finite word is a slippery, slimy concept that bends and flexes like a strange, sick shadow. Try to nail it down and it squirms away.
Listen until ears hurt. Smoke until lungs hurt. Walk until feet hurt. Work until soul hurts.
Stare into windows and steel and water seeking something there. Now familiar, now strange.
First comes art and photography.
Fourth is your soul.
Fifth is the earth.
Sixth, a livelihood.
Seventh, promises made.
Now good acts.
Next to last, your humanity.
Finally, romantic devotion.
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.
They say everything worthwhile requires sacrifice.
Now Abraham dragged Isaac up that hill, to speak as much.
In the corridor of days, it makes about as much sense. In the sound that still gets through. Air being pushed up out of the dark underground.
Missing sleep until it’s something that comes and goes. Vision blurry and out of focus. Mind not working right. Coming and going, like bad wiring. Kill it with booze and cigarettes.
I’ve been feeling rotten and reptilian, but only when I read scripture, or other religious or philosophical texts.
Never when I’m in the simple day-to-day, in the mode of working, and coming and going from work.
The way her voice sounds, soft and sweet. “For sure,” she says in answer. It rolls off of her tongue.
Like an animal, what I would do.
I crack my neck and knuckles waiting for my stop at West 4th. I feel like I’m coming alive, my head breaking the slimy surface of a black pond.
Rising up. My eyes roll up and focus on the light above me.
Somewhere up there, I think.
My little brother tells me he wants a copy of the print I gave to our mother.
But what good is art if you give it to everyone?
The same thing, done well, over and over again, becomes cheap, and ordinary.
After days of obsessing about models and projects, they seem to like what I’ve done.
But what I did is just everything except what I didn’t do.
The part you hide away from everyone probably wants to get out, too.
Eventually you’ll tear yourself in two. Right down the middle.
The holidays are right around the corner and already my body begins to slow down. One by one, the lights go out in all the rooms. And my brain grows darker.
One day Garrett laughs about stupid nu-metal lyrics he found online.
The next day I come clean about asking his ex girlfriend to work with me.
I never know how to factor anyone else into the equation. In my mind, when I do the math, there’s me and there’s a camera, and a woman, and photographs. Everything else is just interference.
Some nights I sit at the bar and stare into a glass and drink in the static. All the mindless chit chat. All the wasted minutes and hours and days and years.
“You’re lucky because you got out early,” Garrett confides.
“Smartest thing I ever did,” I tell him. But sometimes I wonder if I had that piece of paper, and I was just another fucking idiot brainwashed by the American Education System, if things would be easier.
If ignorance is really bliss, maybe stoogery is only a slight downgrade.
At night I edit photographs for a job. And in between the looks is a Look. I know it means nothing.
I’m just at the point where anything could seem like something.
Tilt my head back until it pulls at my throat. And the tension begins to drip down my spine. Wipe the sleep from my eyes. And brain.
Not yet. Not yet.
Photographing stains on the subway. And on the platform when the train comes, I think about killing myself.
Just a thought. What will I have for dinner tonight? Hey, photograph that stain. You know, you could jump in front of that train.
Life is getting easier. The less you talk, the more that fades, the smaller the circle gets and the colder you feel. Maybe depression gets worse, too, this time of year. But if you’re a man, who the fuck cares?
Holidays and the biblical flood of imbeciles it brings to the streets. The cold. The general bullshit and misery of the holidays. The invitations of family, invitations that force me to question whether I really can’t make an appearance, or if I simply want to remain away from warmth.
But then I wonder if anyone really wants to see me, and I begin to think it’s all some big lie or joke. Like they’re all in cahoots with one another – to make me think I’m part of something I’m not.
But I’ve always felt that way, about everyone.
“Tomorrow is another day,” Tony says. Then he utters his goodbyes and melts into the night.
I stare up at empty windows.
And I rake my brain for a reason.
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.
Too many jokes I tell myself.
A handful of friends.
Over and over again, too many jokes.
Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck wandering. From one place to another. No place feels quite right. No place feels like home.
Nose to the ground, searching for traces of something. A memory,
Reality feels like a dewdrop on a leaf that shakes and drips. Blink for a moment and it’s gone. Disappeared. And you disappear with it.
There’s a memory filed away of a cold night drinking somewhere. The cold getting to me, and talking to friends until that feeling slipped away, forgotten.
Sometimes it occurs to me a person could do that his or her entire life. Just autopilot the whole fucking mess.
Wake up one day and finish it off.
You’d like to think you’re one soul in a brotherhood of man. But no one wants to get his fingers dirty pulling things from the muck. So it’s up to each of us to out-do the rest in all varieties of vanity.
I shave my head and slowly trim the colorful clothes from my wardrobe. Even when I splurge on a pair of colorful sneakers, I wind up rebuking myself.
Like whatever you like, but do nothing which is of no use.
The process is its own reward.
After it calms down, the person looks away. Tapping into that pure moment. It will always happen.
First some small talk, small feats to break the ice. Maybe too many jokes to make the person smile. And then a bit of conversation, only half-carried, trailing off into silence. And on that threshold, a gentle lapse into that state of honesty.
I will put some fives in my wallet.
And walk through the city. In solitude.
But if I find someone like me, hanging out, with that nowhere-to-go look and nothing-to-do attitude, I’ll pay them for a portrait.
Something carved away from the whole, floating out there in the periphery.
Shorn from your origins, belonging nowhere, and to no one. Like a bird taking wing.
Climbing high above metal valleys. Poured from molten sunshine.
I was probably always dumb.
When they yanked me out of classes and stuck me in an empty room with puzzles.
I was dumb then too.
But people get really fucking proud of the things that make them different.
Like the doctor who pointed out the birthmark on my back to my parents.
Now I wonder about the moles there.
I keep telling myself I’m on the mend.
And every time I pass someone smoking a cigarette, I fall back into that part of me that is still an addict. Doesn’t matter what it is – cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, opioids. Give me something dangerous to play with,
Give me a way to numb my brain, and edge closer to death.
Just waiting for you around the bend. Still fucking dumb.
When you realize you’re the reason you are the way you are.
The kind of rebellious half-wit who couldn’t finish school. And turning away, one by one, people who might have settled for you.
I was probably always dumb. Doesn’t matter what you create. Matters what you make.
I never wanted to be like them, anyway. Kids who could get it, laugh it away. I was always the one off by myself, alone. Grew up alone, and still dumb.
Deep out there on the periphery, in the hum and murmur of the day-to-day.
I like to tell myself I am getting better.
I’m not. I still dream about people I used to love.
And I think, maybe I should reach out. Be a little human and communicate.
But what kind of poison would I spit out? What havoc would I wreak? I don’t want to be human.
I want to be loved again, and in love again, because I’m weak and sick and an addict.
Because I’m dumb. Because I always have been.
Just let it go and accept what comes next.
What’s the fucking point? Nothing to kill yourself with. Just one day after another. Doing the same thing. Making money. More than you need, more than you can spend.
Come home and cook a meal. Drink and fall asleep.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Meaningless work. Meaningless words. A life full of the emptiness you buy and sell. To people who can’t wait to buy emptiness, and hold it over others’ heads. Brand Name emptiness and Quality emptiness. Emptiness on sale or at a discount.
Just as long as people buy and sell.
The world continues to spin.
Tell me what’s the point? In hollow days and empty rooms, in the spaces between moments pouring by, it’s me thinking everything to death, and getting nowhere for it.
Everyone needs a purpose.
I feel like a dead end.
I was probably always a dead end.
I keep thinking of extricating myself. From a realm of thorns. Claustrophobic.
I keep thinking of going out, by alleyways and streets, into roads that run on into highways. Out into the country and far to the south, where not so many people live.
And I think about finding the water at night, lapping at the shore and the inky blackness. And no voices, no people talking. Just the quiet, and the waves’ gentle caress.
I keep thinking that something is wrong. As though a clock knew it wasn’t telling the correct time, or that someone had forgotten to wind it.
And instead of moving itself to tell the correct time, going out into the country and staring into water, far from the sound of other clocks.
I wonder how a photographer could take himself out of a picture. It’s not so much myself there as it is traces of what I am.
Less than a picture of a broken clock, it’s the footprint of a broken clock. And the shadow it casts. That gloomy pall, jutting into and overcoming the frame.
I want to say I never liked being photographed. But as a kid I could handle it sometimes. The older I got, the less happy I became with the way I looked.
And I always felt like it was something that someone would use against me. Just a picture, but there’s this weight to it.
Draped over your shoulders like a yoke, or around your neck like a penance. Bowing your head like a source of guilt, or shame.
I was never that person who really cared about his looks. Or at least, not when I was younger.
If I see them – people I could get to know, on the subway or in the street -they will pass by. Like ghosts. Locked into paths their footsteps follow.
If I’m programmed too, surely I wouldn’t know as much. My footfalls are as much a mystery to me as them.
Unless I’m the ghost. Something lingering on. A bit of dew clinging at a thread.
Utterly insignificant. Breathe and I might turn to vapor.
I keep thinking about time. And how I won’t own a watch or a clock.
And time moves by like a leaden river, slow, powerful, and all-consuming.
Wherever it goes, whatever happens.
Broken and telling no time.
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.
In a town where nothing ever happens, and time is told by a calendar of deaths, I find myself, again.
I come back to see family. Every time. It’s the only reason to keep coming back. The last handful of friends eek out a life that seems to revolve around work and alcohol.
I tell everyone who will listen to follow me away.
“Why do you hate it so much?” My sister-in-law asks, as we drive through Jersey.
I tell her.
You remember that person – someone you knew, who was insanely good at something. And you thought: that person is going to go far with that. Only they didn’t. Instead they started working some dead-end job and drinking themselves stupid. And they did it in some two horse town in Pennsylvania. Because that is what Pennsylvania is.
In the hot summer sun, the oppressive air thick and leaden, and the thought that you could live there if you could just find someone to photograph.
But it’s beyond ken or reckoning for most folks, in places like that. Taking a photo? What are you, crazy?
I fled that place. And once I tried going back, but there’s very little left for me there.
People who can’t break free. My little brother and his wife. My little nieces. My mother.
Dusty memories I dig up every now and then, just to monitor their slow decomposition. Jumping into lakes with Tom. Driving down unknown roads with Kit. Kissing Autumn late at night at a gas station. Laying in a cemetery, looking up at the moon.
And the memories of summer, hot and oppressive.
It was always hot and oppressive. Even if I remember it now, it was like Hell had come to life. And always the same.
Over hills and far away, in another life, I might have stayed there and become like other people. Might have married. Might have settled down. Might have opened up my mind to the idea of a normal kind of life.
But that’s for the suckers and idiots, I think. For the people who couldn’t find a way out. For the people who couldn’t sacrifice anything.
But that’s not true.
Lurking there, a well of sadness. And everyone’s drinking from it. A bitter struggle to live, to get by, an air of desperation, hot and oppressive.
The liars and cheats were my friends. The sinners and the law breakers. The drunkards and addicts. The crazy people no one wanted.
In the late afternoons when the sun finally began to sink. Or at sunset, softening and dying the sky. Or in the night, still and alive with a symphony of insects.
We’d go out and get drunk. And raise Hell.
Up, up, up.
‘Til one day, having seen my exit, I disappeared.
Sometimes, I almost miss it.
I’ll send you something steamy later, I tell her.
Then we go a few days without talking.
That’s just the way it is. The impetus to connect comes and goes, like the tides or phases of the moon. Happy memories will pull me closer, and the sadder ones will push me away.
In the summer heat, it oozes out my pores and runs down my face.
I count the days.
“What are you doing tonight?” A coworker asks.
Cleaning my apartment.
“You’ve been saying that for a while.”
But it’s a big apartment. And there’s a lot to clean.
There’s a lot to drag to the curb. There’s a lot to throw away.
You have new model?
Last time I look at your site, you have African American model.
Black. No, she’s an old model. I’ve known her for years.
In my head, I wonder how Erykah is doing. I take the C going home, just on the off chance I might run into her. But nope.
There’s a day I don’t remember as a kid. Or, more accurately, there’s a block or time that occurred on that day that I don’t remember.
But without a concrete memory everything becomes sheer speculation.
Sitting on the G Train that I haven’t taken in six years. Six fucking years. Since I was down on Carroll Street, or up at Bergen.
But I remember things there. Waiting for a train with Erykah and Chike.
At the end of the longest day of the month, I remember it. With the shake and rattle of the subway cars. The girl across the aisle, her chest heaving.
I’m too stupid or basic or rotten to be decent. My head is a ticker tape of every perverted, animalistic thought.
I glance away from her tits and up at the ceiling. I think about what I want. I catch my reflection in the warped wall of the subway car and I think about how I look.
And I feel like this fucking twisted and stretched monster, bent over and around this concept of just ruining the things around me. And I know that’s inside me, so the last good part of me is trying to kill me, too.
And I just think about smoking my brains away and doing every dangerous thing and fucking my brains out and when there’s nothing left, just giving it a jump into the epilogue.
Old like the mountains and rivers.
I tried to think of other things to say, but the truth ends there.
It’s the bits and pieces that make sense.
It’s all the shit and filth that gets left on the cutting floor.
Not the adding up, but the gradual, inexorable, inescapable and unstymied taking away.
What remains will mark you for everyone else. It’s the mirror reflections at your feet that you keep for yourself.
Kind of sinking, kind of swimming.
You’re driftwood swallowed up in the tide, going out to the periphery, forever slipping away.
Bits and pieces make it whole again.
Things stolen and reconditioned. A library of plundered moments. Copies that have outlived their originals.
And the feeling that it’s all so fake, and that’s what makes it real.
Gonna smile real big. And close my eyes.
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.
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.
“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.
Those are the two words I hear. Maybe there are other words around them – before or after.
Maybe there’s a context to them. I don’t know.
All I hear are those two words.
She’s telling her friend in the other room. They think I’m asleep. Because, up until a second ago, I was.
But now I’m awake, and I’ve heard those words.
–The guy behind the bulletproof window looks me over. “What kind of work you do?”
He does a poor impression of a New Yorker sketching somebody. Find out who they are, where they’re from. Maybe some idiot out-of-towner. Maybe someone who is going to be a pain in the balls.
“I’m in sales.”
“No, audio.” A pause. Too much alcohol, and my throat feels like an ashtray. The weight of my camera in my bag is weighing on my shoulder. And I’m tired.
The kind of tired you feel at 3 am. Standing in a dingy lobby of the Rodeway Inn while some guy estimates how much he can squeeze you for.
Everyone is just a mark, it seems. Even somebody like me.
“Why medical sales?” I honestly want to know. And for a minute, it’s not about who knows more about who, and the facade comes down.
“Your shirt…” he says, pulling at his own collar. I am wearing a henley. Apparently he thinks it is something like scrubs. Really? Whatever.
It’s 3 am in the dingy lobby of the Rodeway Inn.
“One twenty nine for the night.”
I tell him that’s fine. At this point, who the fuck cares. Give me the room. I’ll close my eyes when I turn on the lights, so I don’t see the roaches scatter.
Two nights in LA. Then back to New York. Back to civilization.
Two nights. And one is almost over.
I can feel myself moving. Even before I think it, it seems. I am up. I turn the light on, and I go into the living room where she’s sitting, with her friend, talking about me.
“You know what?” I say it heatedly, breathlessly. I’ve never needed to say something so badly in my life. The words seem lighter than air. They come out faster than I can think them, just as my body moves faster than I can will it.
“You know what?” I say. “Both of you can go fuck yourselves.”
Sam has a look on her face. A look like someone’s just told her it’s raining outside. A mildly inconvenienced look.
Back in the room. Belt, wallet, cameras, into my bag. Cigarettes and music in my pocket. Money in my wallet. Good.
I walk back through the living room where Matty says something. And Sam starts spewing words. Like vomit. But I don’t know what she’s saying, because I know she has nothing to say to me. Not anymore.
The last words I heard out of her mouth were “He’s ugly.”
That’s it. That’s all I need.
Might as well have cut off my ears.
Ashamed of my own stupidity, I walk outside, light up a cigarette and walk.
When I open the door, the sunlight hits me like a bag of bricks. My eyes slam shut but the pain is already inside my head. I stagger down the sidewalk to the street in front of the motel.
At the curb two guys are smoking grass. One of them, big and quiet, sizes me up. He’s bigger than me, and quieter too. You can’t hear him breathe. You can hear me thinking.
His associate, more gregarious, asks if I want to hit this, profering a joint. I thank him out of genuine kindness. As much as I hate LA, there are still some great people out there. Many of them smoking joints at curbs, offering it to the haggard out-of-towner who just slept on the world’s worst mattress at the Rodeway Inn.
“I get too paranoid when I smoke,” I tell him. “But I don’t judge people who partake.”
We both smile. Across the street, a young man and his girlfriend leave a dispensary clutching small white paper bags.
He talks, about what he does, why he’s there. Down from San Francisco, or something like that. The big quiet guy watches me the way I might watch a bug. Judging if it’s something living or if it’s too much trouble to reach out and squish it.
Eventually the talkative one asks what I do.
“Photography,” I say. “I was out here photographing this girl.”
“Daaaaamn bro, you got a ‘gram?”
I tell him I don’t. That I’m working on developing my own site. “Why make material for someone else’s platform?” I ask, earnestly, sincerely.
“Yeah but everyone got the ‘gram, man,” my hustler friend explains. He twists his torso and neck back as he says it, his chin ducking slightly, like he’s schooling a younger brother on some common sense shit. Who gives a fuck about your shitty website?
But he doesn’t say that. This is a marijuana-smoking curbside-gentleman in LA. He has more manners than that – especially for some out-of-towner loser from New York.
Instead, he asks for a business card. I don’t have one. Well, can I give him the URL. I tell him not to worry about it.
I know what he probably knows, but will pretend not to know, or accept – that we’re not ever going to see one another again, that none of this matters.
We’re just two people standing at the curb in Santa Monica, smoking in the noon sun.
I haven’t even gotten inside my room yet when Sam calls me. More word vomit over the phone. Like a foreign language. Disengaged syllables that run into and out of one another. But nothing makes sense. Nothing lines up. She might as well be speaking French. Or nothing. I don’t fucking know.
In my head, I feel words I want to say. I flew across the country to see you. I flew across the country to photograph you. Do you think I would do that for anyone else?
But it’s my own damn fault. How could I be so fucking stupid?
At the end of her string of words, I catch the words “and that’s all I want to say.”
Using the words “and that’s all I want to say” don’t make any sense. They don’t even have a right or a need to exist. If you have a sentence that ends with the words “and that’s all I want to say” it would mean the SAME THING even if you had NEVER SAID THEM AT ALL.
For example, if you’re trying to convince someone like me that you’re somehow not responsible for the shit that comes out of your mouth, and that really is all you want to say, JUST SAY THAT. Then stop fucking talking. Don’t throw on a bunch of extra words that don’t serve any other purpose than to make it sound like the point you’re making is so complex that it needs to be somehow clarified.
But I don’t say any of this.
The tiredness comes rising up from the soles of my feet. Washing up over my legs and waist, lapping at my neck and threatening to envelop me completely. My brain, so fed up with LA’s unrelenting bullshit, begins to shut down in anticipation of needed rest.
“Well, you said it.”
“What do you mean?” she asks, incredulous.
“You said what you wanted to say.”
I think she tells me goodnight. I tell her yeah. Hang up phone. Collapse onto bed.
Fade to black.
In the airport, I have a beer and some fries. On the TV in front of me, there’s a hockey game on. I watch it the way I might watch the surface of a lake or a harbor. Just colors and shapes moving in front of you.
A learning experience, I tell myself, finding the words almost too easily.
Some money spent, some time wasted, but a lesson learned. I keep checking my pockets, my wallet, my phone.
I feel lighter than I should be, thinner than I should be, somehow less substantial or real. Like a part of me doesn’t exist. Like something has gone away.
I find my gate and sit in a chair looking at nothing. The man next to me shovels peanuts into his mouth.
You guess you’re getting older. You’re learning your lessons, finally. The part of you that felt so sure – that part of you seems to be gradually grinding away to nothing.
It’s all turning to chaos. Slowly, inexorably. With each passing second.
For the first time in your life, you seriously re-evaluate the things you have always chased, always held up. Whatever has been left unexplained, whatever retains even a veneer of mystery…even that feels like it’s slowly becoming rotten or co-opted.
And you don’t know whether you’re unhinged or naive. And in some ways, the outcome feels the same, regardless.
In the end, you’re alone with those crazy ideas. And those things you see. Shapes and colors, light and dark, contrast and grain.
Despite the things that would break you down, inside you’re just getting crazier, and more obsessed with creating the image you already see.
Deep, deep down inside my chest, there’s a hollow or cavity. And there was a thing nestled there for a very long time. And now it means nothing, or so much less that it effectively feels like nothing.
But I still want to find the truth. I still carry a camera.
Still see things in my head, lining up a certain way.
And I know, I know now.
I’ll go out tomorrow night and buy a Zippo.
I’m sick of the cheap Bic in my pocket.
Black like everything else I own. In black boots, black jeans, black polo. Even my socks and boxers.