Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Summer I Was Twelve

The summer I was twelve, my family left the suburbs, and with them, the good opinions of just about every friend, neighbour and relation, and moved into the inner city. This was a very strange thing for ostensibly middle-class white people to do in Columbus Ohio in 1976. Even if they were missionaries.

Our new neighbourhood was a forgotten place bounded on four sides by lately built freeways and freeway ramps. Those rushing from one end of the city to another no longer had to pass through our streets with their depressing and neglected tumbledown houses, and the yards full of junk, chickens, children and dogs. And so increasingly they didn't, unless they were looking for trouble or cheap sex and drugs.

The roar of traffic was constantly with us (I liked to imagine it was the sound of the universe expanding); so were police sirens, helicopters, fires, gunfights, afterhours joints, longhaul trucks leaking toxic sewage, and churches.  That year I counted 84 places of worship within an eight block radius of our house. 

The only sites more plentiful than places for prayer were vacant lots; in 1968, after Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot, this neighbourhood, like so many other poor segregated zones in the country, burned for months with rage and riots. In later years, its houses continued to burn and tumble thanks to faulty wiring, old gas stoves, depressed or stupid people smoking in bed, murderous feuds, and general neglect.

There were no trees in the neighbourhood, save for the one across the street in the church yard, from which hung an old tire swing.  Those hardy trunks we called "stink trees"--or less often, "trees of heaven"--like the other populous residents, roaches and rats, required almost nothing to survive in cracks in the pavement or garbage heaps.

The people who lived there were treated like their human equivalents: fearsome pests, for whom no respect or care was required.

Our stories were rich, but lives in the neighbourhood were short, rotten and rough.  In fact of those I grew up with, almost no one survives, save those who joined the military or wound up sentenced to life in prison.  Killing, it seemed, was about the only way out.


I took most of these photographs in the near East Side of Columbus Ohio in April and May 1977 with a little Kodak 110 pocket camera. The photos became a part of my first attempt at photojournalism, a 25-page essay entitled "The Inner City," a final grade 7/8 anthropology/English project.  

Watching Richard Roy's Frisson de Colline, a recent nostalgic-melancholic film about a season in the life of a 12-year old boy in rural Quebec in 1969 made me think about my own experiences at the age of 12. I've barely begun, and already it's almost too much. Hard as life could be there then, for America's poor, it is much more brutal now still.  

1. Me, at the age of twelve on our porch, crocheting. I'd tie-dyed my own shirt of course. I think my sister Lisa took this picture.
2. Man turning from 22nd street onto Main.
3. JP's Rib Joint, where in 1977, a whole slab of bar-b-qued ribs would set you back $4.95.
4. The Camel Bell Bar.
5. Laundry.
6. Larry with a balsawood airplane on the steps of First English Lutheran.
7. Back yards of houses on MacAllister Street.
8. Waiting for the free lunch program to open up and playing on the jungle gym in First English Lutheran yard. Sweet Meat [Sabrina] struggles up the "swinging bridge"; her older sister Dede looks at the camera.
9. Webby does Amanda's hair on the church back steps. With her, left to right, are Dede, Sweet Meat and Michelle.
10. Sue sits on her porch and laughs.
11. Next door neighbours Missy and Michael "just goofing" as I said in my 1977 essay. MacAllister Street and afterhours houses in the background.
12. The ice cream truck (Billy and Lynn).
13. Theresa, Mrs. Wallace and her baby.
14. Roger, Sue's son, and Billy, Larry and Theresa's brother.  I wrote in 1977, "I told Roger I would take his picture when he didn't expect it."
15. Michael, eating a piece of cheese, with another friend, also--I think--named Michael.

Friday, January 27, 2012

On Brittle Ice: A Week of Winter Weather

Clouds always tell a true story, but one which is difficult to read.
                        Ralph Abercromby, "Suggestions for an International Nomenclature of Clouds," 1887.

Saturday 21 January 2012--Water Pools in Dead Grass

Sun today, after snow and bluster and rain yesterday.  It must be warm because the pond is slick and watery, though still frozen, snapping and groaning as the ice shifts. Blue sky; blue sea; blue ice. Frozen water pools in the dead grass, glitters in the sun. The ground is solid now, like rock, and won't absorb the rain.

Sunday, 22 January 2012--A Scattering of Snow

The sky is clear blue this morning, the light golden; a scattering of snow sparkles on the porch railings and floor, and swirls in strange looping patterns across the blue ice of the pond. Every contour is sharp, crisp, defined. At -11 it is cold enough that moisture has dropped from the air, and along with it, all haze. Another day of such cold and near stillness of wind and the sea will begin to freeze. Ducks swim in the shallows, eiders I think, but I would have to look through the binoculars to be sure.  Out by the islands smoke rises from the sea, warmer water lifting into cooler air.  A swath of brittle salt-ice limns the beach where the tide has pulled back.

Tuesday 24 January 2012 (Halifax)--Blot Out the World

A steady rain falls on the ice, the windows, the streets. Wind in the trees, standing water everywhere, the ice rotting and guttering, hiss of tires on pavement, darkness. A twilight day. A day to be home, to stay home, to huddle in bed beneath the eiderdown. Blot out the world. But I am not at home; I am here, in Halifax, and have to trudge to work soon. Cold feet, wet feet and a blown out umbrella--the joys of the day.

Rain. Rain. I listen to Bach's cello sonatas. The wind picks up, flings rain like pebbles at the windows. Time to get up and go now.

Wednesday 25 January 2012--The Sea is a Lung

Home again in woodsmoke and slush and yellow grass and damp earth and singing birds. High tide, and masses of seaweed are tossed up on the island, on the cove shore; they glow, rubescent, beneath grey streaky skies.  Lines of light above the islands. A slight wind. Rain.

Sudden angle of near sun so that the porch floor begins to glisten, the water goes silver and the edges of things sharpen. And then it fades. A brief break of blue overhead. The last one. Seas nearly flat calm, just the motion of the tide rolling in, rippling the glassy surface. That movement always makes me feel as if the earth is breathing, as if the sea is the lung of the world.

Thursday 26 January 2012--Suddenly Sun Flashes

Blue light of a coming storm. Grey clouds, dull sea, a narrow streak of light across the sky to the south. Frozen pond. Suddenly sun flashes through thinning cloud and the sea glistens gold, a beaten brass pan.

Friday 27 January 2012--Descent into a Colourless World

A cold morning. The sea has frozen again nearly all the way to islands and shattered white sheets of ice, like glass, lie crumpled on the beaches. The sun is a pale white orb behind pale clouds; the pond and sea, too, are a whitened grey.  Now is our descent into a colourless world.  A storm is in the offing: snow, then rain then ice, oh joy.  I am glad I do not have to come or go to the city today. 

All night an eerie stillness as we wait for the wind to begin to sigh from afar.

Photos of ice and bladderwrack were shot between 22 and 26 January 2012 on Sober Island and in West Quoddy, Nova Scotia. Whole sequence may be seen here:

Ralph Abercromby's comments on clouds are taken from Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies. London: Picador, 2002, p. 253.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Quick. Exchange. Recycle. Reuse.

I discover the "quick message" file on my cell phone and think it might make a good story if I rearrange the entries. What it makes is not "good" so much as funny.  And every sequence leads to the same spot--I think--a leap into bed. Really? Sexting, it turns out, is inevitable. So too is sorrow. Where there is a telephone, someone is waiting.  And nearly wordless. 

Exchange I (Recycle.)

 Where u at?
 B there soon.

I'm gonna B late.

What's up?
Booty call.

U know u want me.
RU up 4 it?

Your place or mine?
Let's do it!

Exchange II  (Repeat.)

Do it! 
You up?

Your place?
Yours. Gonna be late.

Where are you?
Boy call.

B there soon.


Exchange III (Restraint.)

be there





Photos are of a plastic drop cloth hung out to dry. September, 2011, Halifax. Recycled plastic; reusable words. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

When Last I Died, An Interview with Sophie Calle

Let me be clear; it is she--Sophie Calle--who asks these questions.  I simply answer, as truthfully as I can. (I'm sorry if you don't believe me. You should.)

--When did you last die? 
--Late last night, three hours before the moon set. And then I woke again.

--What gets you out of bed in the morning?
--In this season? The thought of getting back into it at night. And sometimes the promise of a hot eucalyptus scented bath. Coffee keeps me up, as does the endless list of tasks life has handed me.  I cross one off, and it adds three. Or five, or ten. This is why I have to die every night; it is a way of resetting the clock.  But, alas, the list survives.

--What became of your childhood dreams? 
--They were all nightmares from which I am glad to have awakened.

--What sets you apart from everyone else? 
-- Nothing. I wear others' castoffs, and can hardly remember the last new pair of shoes.  In any case, I will surely fit into another pair someone else has tossed aside.

--What is missing from your life? 
--Nothing and then everything and then nothing again, so that I tumble into a quandry without top or bottom.

--Do you think that everyone can be an artist? 
 --Of course. Everyone but myself, naturally.  Which is why I must make such an effort to insist that I too might someday think of myself this way.  Just not yet.

--Where do you come from? 
--I grew up in a flat place south of this one, a thousand miles from the sea. The lights of the city blocked out the stars, and I thought that the endless roar of the traffic was the sound of the void.  
I was, perhaps, right about that.

--Do you find your lot an enviable one? 
--I have no truck with envy, though desire is everything.  Can you desire a lot? Yes, I do.

--What have you given up?
--Lent. Small purchases. And often, hope.

 --What do you do with your money? 
--I put it into a household account and there it disappears. I am not sad about this; what else should I do with my money? 

--What household task gives you the most trouble?
--I loathe vacuuming, spot removal, scrubbing the bathtub and fixing other people's computers.  And correcting grammar mistakes.  Yet I seem to be an expert in all of these things.

--What are your favourite pleasures? 
--You really think I'm going to tell you? Okay, I relent. One is....dancing. Nothing makes me happier. I wish I had been a choreographer. Or had known Pina Bausch.

--What would you like to receive for your birthday? 
--A complete set of poetry by CD Wright. And a really sturdy tripod. And perhaps a new pair of shoes all my own. Or a swimming pool; the sea is really too cold for sport these days.

--Cite three living artists whom you detest. 
--Artists? I can't think of one.  But politicians, managers, corporate kleptocrats? May an infinity of evil befall the lot of them, they who are the evil that shatters us. You want me to name them? Ayy, where do I begin? Just pick up the newspaper and check off the names on the front page.

--What do you stick up for? 
--Virtually everyone else.

--What are you capable of refusing? 
-- Butter. Sugar. Cream. A ride. I wish I were capable of refusing stupidity, but sometimes I tumble into it and cannot get out.

--What is the most fragile part of your body? 
--My feet. Or perhaps my breath. This is why I didn't become a dancer, although I still long for such precise athleticism. Words rarely fail me, but my body lumbers; it is less reliable than it used to be.

--What has love made you capable of doing? 
--Love has made me capable of hatred. Of rage, of going to battle.  Strange perhaps, because the opposite is not true--rage and hatred don't make you capable of love.

--What do other people reproach you for? 
--Unfinished projects. Belatedness. Abstraction. Absence.  Falling down when I should be standing up. Loving the wrong things. And they are right.  I reproach myself for these failings too, among many others.

--What does art do for you? 
--It is sometimes the only door to hope. Without it, I don't think much of human beings.

--Write your epitaph. 
--Wait, that's not a question. I would prefer not to. Not yet, though as I've said, I do sometimes die every night. See? Another unfinished project. A belated requiem.  Let us sing.

--In what form would you like to return?
--As a winged thing, fleet of foot; nimble, pirouetting, light of heart, ripe and tender like a peach in July.

The questions are French artist Sophie Calle's and have been taken from from “Sophie Calle: Interview.”  Frieze Magazine. 

Photo: Hotel bed, Philadelphia, PA. April 2011.