Saturday, January 27, 2007

From A Moving Train

After the floodwaters had receded, I decided to go to New York. I did the math: rebooking a plane flight would cost far more than simply taking the train. So I phoned up Amtrak and, before I knew it, I was at Back Bay Station waiting for the Acela, the much touted high speed train that would whisk me to New York in nothing flat. I liked the idea of the train, not least for the thought that a disaster that transpires solely on the ground seems more palatable that one that's preceeded by plunging from the sky. And I have always liked traveling alone: there's something supremely pleasurable in the anonymity and the inaccessibility of being in transit and accountable, at least temporarily, to no one. Of course, I wouldn't be completely alone. I would have my camera. And, if our luck held, there would be twenty blocks of daylight between Penn Station and the hotel.

Back Bay Station is a dark little joint, physically and aesthetically cold, and as grimy as one would expect from any midwinter, urban, public space.

The high windows don't admit much light, but I had a fast lens -- f/1.8 -- so I snapped away as I waited.

I noted with amusement the public redaction on a sign explaining the new "Charlie Card" system. Boston's subway, aka the MBTA, used to operate via coins and tokens, or commuter passes for frequent patrons. The transaction was simple. Give cash to a person in the booth, get a token, insert token in turnstyle, board train. Recently a byzantine system of "Charlie Cards" and "Charlie Tickets" was instituted (Charlie from the old song "Charlie on the MBTA"). This, as far as I can tell, involves touch-screen computers with a confusing array of coin or credit card options, a plethora of choices involving tickets and receipts, cards with "value" that can be added and subtracted. All, I suspect, to eliminate the ticket-taker's job. As I photographed the sign, I smiled at the small evidence of human dialogue amidst the ambient dehumanization.

For all this complaint, I must confess to a strange attraction to empty public spaces, the grimier and the more shadowy the better.

Underground, objects take on a stark and numinous singularity.

Shafts of light traverse the gloom as through dark water.

A brief flurry over the tracks -- a pigeon flies past.

I've always wanted to photograph the subway's catacomb-like tunnel wall recesses.

The train was nearly empty. I chose a window seat and settled in as the train left the station and entered daylight. After a while, a man sat next to me. He was courteous and quiet, about my age and carried a small brief case -- most likely a businessman. His friend sat across the aisle from him, and immediately began to talk. To expound and expatiate and recount, as in raconteur. My seat mate made intermittant noises of assent and encouragement as his friend went on and on. And on. I couldn't help listening. He spoke at length of parties, past and yet to come, of office politics, of colleagues, favored and suspect. Then he launched into a long story -- a much rehearsed set piece, I imagined -- of a hunting trip he'd been on two decades prior.

He was sitting, he said, on the side of a remote cliff in Maine looking down at a river so clear he could see the fish swimming in it. As he cradled his gun -- a large, powerful rifle -- he thought Even if I find no animals on this trip, there are such abundant fish in that river that I am guaranteed a kill ! The thought pleased him, he explained, for the purpose of the hunting trip, after all, was to kill an animal.

But soon he heard a crashing in the underbrush and he spotted the largest buck he'd ever seen, with a huge rack of antlers. He pursued the animal, and, eventually shot it. But it rose, wounded, and fled. There was a ethic to hunting, he explained. He had to find it and finish it off.

And, of course, he did; he slew it, and hauled the carcass miles through the snowy woods to the hunting cabin (with his brother who by now had shown up in the tale.) They gutted it, and butchered it. The tale went on and on: the cold, snowy night; the warm, cozy cabin; the Stoli, ice-cold from being stashed in the snow; the bellies full of meat.

It was a tale he'd told countless times, I was sure. I watched the landscapes roll past -- the reedy lowlands leading to the sea, the industrial wastes, the trackside dwellings of the poor.

The sun was sinking, and blinding.

Everything seemed low and mean and dilapidated and yet, at the same time, oddly beautiful.

These were the the timeless dwellings of human beings, their courtyards and clotheslines, their markets and city streets. Where lights come on at night to dispell the darkness, where tables are set and food is eaten, where lovers sleep side by side, arm in arm, where children play.

Where the light, just before twilght, is as ineffable and glorious as God, Himself,

where the color blue goes straight from the eye to the heart,

and where even the starkest, most faceless symmetries stand on the dusty ground with dignity.

The Acela alternately sped and crept through its landscapes. I squinted into the light

which reduced structures to silhouettes

and complex, illuminated glyphs. We were approaching the city, hurtling past

the bedroom towns of Connecticut. My seatmate and his friend had long since retired to the club car where I, myself, had also bought food: a bagel with butter and coffee with milk, both serious dietary trespasses for a vegan, forgive me Bossie: I could have forgone the milk they stole from you. I could have, maybe should have, been content with dry bread and black coffee,

but something about this trip, this week, this life cried con leche, por favor

and I could not help myself.

I cradled my camera -- a large, powerful Nikon -- as I watched the landscpe grow taller, starker and more industrial.

Soon I'd be in Manhatten, about as far out of my weedy, solitary element as could be. There, the air would be thronged with indecipherable messages; men in starched shirts and stiff hair would look through me, past me, their eyes on what prize I can't begin to imagine.

A wordless prayer fluttered in me, like a pigeon lost in a tunnel. I stared, and the wordless answer came, like wind through scaffolding, spirit into flesh.

Amazing, I thought, as we hurtled toward the city. Like grace.


It had been an awful week, replete with difficulty and tragedy, and the long-planned weekend trip to New York had lost much of its appeal. Its occasion was the jazz educator's convention, and I was tagging along as jazz wife. We would fly down Thursday, attend The Magic Flute at the Met on Friday night, spend an afternoon at the MOMA on Saturday, then fly home. While DK convened, I would wander about taking pictures.

But, by Wednesday night, I couldn't imagine going anywhere. DK had to. I would sleep on it. There was, as usual, laundry to be done, so hauled a basketful downstairs and put it in the machine.

Soon DK's urgent voice came up from the basement. His studio is around the corner from the laundry. I ran downstairs to find my husband standing like a colossus of Rhodes in the midst of a soapy flood. After we'd sopped it up with bedspeads, towels and sheets I tried to figure out what had happened. I cautiously ran some water through the machine's cycles, set to "extra small load." No flood.

So, with the same mechanical reasoning that had, many years ago, led to the involuntary manslaughter of my VW bug (The oil warning light's on ! It must be an oil warning light malfunction ! I'll keep driving !) I decided that the washer's exuberant incontinence had been a fluke and I'd throw in another load. I'd make it a point to wander down before the water drained, just in case.

By the time I remembered the "wander down" part, Flood II was well underway. I splashed toward the machine in time to see water gushing up out of the drainage pipe that collects the effluents. So that's why the tops of the litterboxes were wet ! I thought, as I ran for more sheets and towels. My linen supply was dwindling.

After we'd mopped up the flood, DK phoned the plumber and I went back upstairs. I'd take a shower, a long, hot shower. It would be relaxing. I stepped into the steamy shower and sighed. There was good water and bad water, I mused, under the warm stream. Restorative showers, basement floods. Much like Gaston Bachelard's phenomenology of water in L'Eau et Les Reves -- deep water, dead water, clear water, spring water, running water, maternal water, pure water, sweet water, violent water --

Refreshed, I went back to the basement to check on DK's progress with the plumber.

I stared in horror at the floor. Bachelard had not mentioned such waters as comprised Flood III. These were no eaux courantes, dormantes, amoureuses, composees, feminines or douces. This was not even the eau morte of the moats and tarns of EA Poe. This was, if anything, eau d'ordure, garbage water, or eau de vomissure, eaux de boulimie. Bits of corn and catfood floated amidst other unsavory and unidentifiable chunks. The laundry outflow pipe was still geysering barfwater from somewhere deep inside the plumbing of the house, propelled by the efflux of my shower. These were the gastric waters of retained then disgorged excess, of hurled chunks. Run that through your material imagination, Gaston, I hissed, tiptoing over the icy porch roof to peel the half-frozen, noise-dampening bedspead off the outside of the bedroom airconditioner, the last big, unused piece of linen in the house. Would I have to strip the beds ?

The next morning, after DK went off to the airport, I gazed at the mountain of sodden, malodorous cloth that dominated the basement floor. It was depressing. I was a physician and I knew about blockages. Intestinal obstructions, arterial occlusions, narrowed bronchial tubes, big prostates clamping down on the bladder outlet. But I was impotent, out of my element. I could not call for a stat GI endoscopy or angiogram or put in a foley catheter. All I knew was that my plumbing was NPO -- nil per os -- no showers, no flushing, no nothing until the plumber came.

Which he did, soon, a cheerful fellow who appeared to be about 18 years old. I gave him the history, and he proceeded to do his physical exam. In a while he summoned me to the depths of the cellar beyond DK's studio, the deep rocky place where the tanks and boilers live. In the farthest, narrowest reaches of that far place, a dismantled apparatus lay on the floor. Beyond it was a gaping cistern full of black water worthy of Poe, worthy of Bachelard's comment

Water is no longer a substance that is drunk; it is a substance that drinks. It swallows the shadow like a black syrup.

"I think it's your ejector pump," he said cheerfully, pointing to the sprung, rusting device. "It's shot. I turned it on and smoke and sparks came out. I'm just the drain guy. I snaked the pipe and it seemed fine. I'll have to call in a plumber. Meanwhile, be careful of that," he concluded, pointing to our silent tarn.

"How deep is it ?" I asked, amazed and horrified that we had such a thing in our basement.

"About waist deep," he said, packing up his tools.

I've had dreams all my life, nightmares actually, of water. Of narrow catwalks over water. Of water that swallows. And now this very nightmare water was living in my cellar. Great.

It was late afternoon by the time the plumber -- another cheerful man, this time of about my age -- had installed the new ejector pump. He sent me upstairs to turn on the shower and flush the toilet. I let 'er rip for a bit then went back down cellar.

There I found Flood IV in progress, the most horrid flood of all. This time the laundry pipe's emissions were not gastric. They were colonic.

The plumber and I stood in the sewage staring at the washer. He produced a wet vac and some rubber gloves, and we set to the mess. I picked some of the less sodden cloths from the wet mountain and sopped; when those ran out I turned to paper towels and newspaper.

"Geez," he said, "This is strange. I'll get a drain guy to come back."

He hung crepe, painting dark scenarios of pulling down walls and ceilings to find the elusive blockage. It looked like the efflux from my bank account would continue. It was the only thing in the house that was draining freely at the moment.

If only heroic duct repairman Harry Tuttle could rappell into my basement as he did in the movie Brazil !

Finally, late, a dour, dark haired, middle aged man man arrived. I told him the story. He looked around, muttering; he seemed puzzled, vaguely annoyed. I left him to his work. Eventually, he summoned me. He'd run two washing machine cycles of water through without incident. Everything seemed fine. He hadn't done anything beyond what the other two plumbers had done. He sent me upstairs to turn on some faucets and the shower, and to flush like a madwoman. I did. No flood. It was a miracle.

He snaked the line for good measure -- just as, given the chance and an orifice, a gastroenterologist will do an endoscopy -- and disappeared without a word (or, miraculously, a third bill) into the night.

I stood alone in the silent basement. DK was hundreds of miles away. The kitties, alarmed by the day's activites, were all in hiding. My son was off somewhere with his friends, all comforting one another in the wake of M's terrible death.

I glanced at the stinking, soggy mountain on the basement floor. There was, as usual, laundry to be done.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


For a photographer accustomed to pointing a macro lens at low bits of weed and grass, New York City comes as a visual shock. There aren't enough gigabytes of memory to hold all that camera and camerwoman want to swallow. We're like a hungry ghost, cursed with a bottomless appetite and a pinhole mouth.

My eyes grow red from trying.

My neck creaks from the craning.

Red is the color of desire, and it is everywhere. It attracts my eye as a red berry attracts a bird's, as a red berry, for that matter, attracts mine. Eye candy,

mouth candy,

ear candy.

Blue rises into blue

above a rippling green slash, glassy as ribbon candy,

and beside a big, red, corrugated air kiss.

A man slouches at a doorway. He winks at me as I shoot, and jokes --

You can have them all for a quarter.

An idol squats on a pedestal announcing that money is god here. It flows in and out of the city like a torrent. The river of god is full of money. I spot the neon CNN logo atop a tower. Currents of money swirl around it, through it, over it. What can be said ? What must not be said ? Ask the green god. It's not about truth. It's about power.

Which is well dressed,

and well built,

and learns about privilege and entitlement

from infancy.

Oh, sweet city, can we devour you before you devour us ?

It's a race. Where shall I start ?

I am ill dressed for the task.

Headless, faceless beings reproach me from bright altars.

I feel the icy scorn of their glance as their acolytes bustle around them.

The green god is far more than a trinity, and as carnal as can be.

Its liturgy is a simple exchange.

Its promise (wink, wink) is eternal youth and beauty.

O clemens, o pia, o dulcis I almost cry, running after a billowing, white vision. But she is, alas, the merciless belle dame of the green god and I am not on her speed dial list.

Camerawoman stops. Night approaches. She is already in a well of spangled darkness.

Abover her floats a white rectangle. Over the traffic sounds, an unearthly chorus -- boy sopranos ? castrati ? -- chants shoes for the living, and shoes for the dead/some are black, and the others are red She shudders. Her camera groans and burps, surfeited with images. She realizes that, despite everything, she is famished.

A pretzel, thinks camerawoman, drawn toward a bright oasis. Now that would hit the spot.