02 March 2015

losing time

It was a few months ago. The snow came suddenly, just after breakfast with drifts over a foot. The cars were sliding wildly up the hills even with winter tires and four wheel drive. The mashrutka came after a long wait and I wondered if it would make it up the hill. A long line of shiny black cars stood in front of us. E was waiting for me to see her Christmas show. It was the last day of school before winter break. 

I jumped to my feet and asked the driver to let me out, less than a hundred feet from where I had gotten on after 15 minutes passed. The snow was almost to my knees, and I bounded through it suddenly out of breath. Weaving past the cars whirring and skidding with clouds of exhaust around them, I made my way to the main street. The sidewalks were not clean here either. My back was wet with sweat. Old people were standing on corners with the saddest looks on their faces as they looked for the mashrutka. 

All of the way to Mosfilmofskaya, I turned to see the mashrutka churning past me. The one I was just on. 

I would take the trolley bus instead. Big, heavy, it would surely plow through the snow and I would make it to the train station and then I would walk to E's school from there.

The trolley bus did come, and it was so full of people I could not pass the turnstile. I hovered by the front door, next to the driver, a young woman swearing profusely with a small towel on the dashboard that she wiped the windows with then went back to the giant steering wheel. We lurched to the corner and the trolley bus would not turn. The shiny black cars were grinding past us, and there was no way to turn without hitting one of them. She swore and swore. People on the bus were laughing, reading books, staring out the windows. I checked my watch and tried to call E to tell her I was getting closer.

The bus rocked back and forth for some time, as the light turned red then green then red. I saw two more mashrutkas pass the window and throught to get out of the trolley bus and get the next one but that is the kind of thinking that got me here in the first place.

Eventually the bus did turn, and the passengers let out a sarcastic cheer. More people shoved in and I did force my way through the turnstile into the throng of people. As I made my way to the middle of the crowd I understood I would need to get out of the side door to exit by the train station. 
"Excuse me." I said to the people around me, forcing a hand through the crowd to show where I was trying to go. Some leaned to the side, some ignored me. I knew the stop was coming soon, and began to be less polite as I shoved towards the door. A young man shoved me right back and I stared at him, gesturing at the door now speaking in English "come on you motherfucker" and squirming around him instead as the bus did stop and I pushed hard against the doors only to feel a shove against the center of my back that put me face down in the snow as the bus pulled away. My neck hot, I looked up and saw the young man laughing at me. I waved a middle finger at him and shouted "thank you" as sarcastically as I could with snow on my face. 

In the school, I calmed down, not as late as I thought I was. the thing about Moscow is that there is always someone terribly late and no one seems to care. E was in her dress, and I tuned the guitar for her. She played a piece, recited poems, danced with her friends. I stared sometimes at the watch on my wrist, taking in everything that had happened in the last few hours. 

The play ended. The children drank juice and ate cookies. E was given a dancing sheep for the new year. 

The streets were now being plowed, long after lunch time. I imagined the ride home would be uneventful. E pulled on her snow pants, and we strode out into the street. I did not tell her about what had happened. It was too embarrassing. I did not want to start her winter break with another story of disappointment.

On the ride home, the mashrutka was crammed full of people. A man stood next to us, he smelled foul, like burnt rubber and mold. I closed my eyes, pulled my scarf across my mouth and put my head down, waiting to sense the turn onto Mosfilmofskaya. 

A voice shouted at one point for the bus to stop and we did. I heard laughter, a man on the phone talking to someone. 

Walking in the street and going back upstairs I felt relieved. There was a pot of soup to warm, noodles, and strong tea waiting for us. Everything would be better in twenty minutes.

That afternoon I looked at my wrist to check the time and saw my watch was gone. I tried to remember when I had taken it off. I remembered looking at it when we were in school, and waiting for the mashrutka. It was not on my desk, or the kitchen table or in the hallway. Then I remembered the man laughing, and understood that was the exact moment when I had lost it. 

Today I took the old clock on the wall down in the kitchen. It tells terrible time to begin with. Better to see a photograph of children playing than that. I don't want to know what time it is. I want to forget how I lost my watch, the one that sat in my friend's house in Connecticut, and then another friend's office as it missed the chance to get tucked in someone's luggage, someone coming to Moscow. It waited six months for me to came back to New York, to retrieve it and enjoy the weight of it, the snug fit, the red inside of the strap, the clean steel edges. It was not so expensive, and I liked it very much. It was made by a small company in New Zealand. Now my hand feels naked.

23 February 2015

a dress rehearsal (landscape of a man, part 2)

When the air runs warm and the snow starts to melt, it is no surprise that I feel restless. If I had long hair, I might walk into a barber shop and ask to cut them everything off like I used to. The streets are crusted with dog shit long hidden in snow banks. Children wander towards playgrounds still wrapped head to toe. They will be in snowsuits until the trees turn green. 

I wake in the middle of the night, listen to N's breathing and then go to the kitchen for a glass of water. I check on E, curled like a fern on top of her blankets, a hand stretched out to some imaginary friend. A shovel rakes against the sidewalk downstairs. I am not the only one up.

Is this a belated mid-life crisis? I ask myself on some days, this fresh urge to create, to be prolific, to follow my muse wherever it takes me with a sort of reckless urgency. Or, did I simply hit a sweet spot? Did I make some soup, did I cook up an alignment of planets, did I keep the motor running all these years and finally it feels like new destinations are just around the next corner? I have no idea. I make dinner. I try to make the bed. I try to find things in boxes that I have misplaced. I try to put my teacup in the sink.

And then the snow returns. This was a dress-rehearsal for Spring. The flakes are flapping against the windows.

09 February 2015

ten second romances

The metro is oddly quiet, even as throngs of people squash past each other. As usual, I think of penguins while the crowd takes tiny steps, funneling into the escalators. The metro photographs well, all Soviet retro glam and decadence but no one ever looks up, or marvels at the chandeliers. Faces down, staring at phones or eyes simply closed. No flirting glances at the faces on the escalator going up, no ten second romances.

I have begun to feel more than the typical winter emptiness. The city is especially barren, more gray, more muddy, more defeated. Everyone I stand next to smells like stale cigarettes. I think of some Washington blowhard who described Russia as "a gas station pretending to be a country". Of course, this is just an underhanded insult, a cheap shot made from a distance. Today, I think Moscow is a forgotten ashtray, crammed full of cigarettes burned down to the filter, some with lipstick, some stained yellow, crammed into an ancient bit of cheap crystal, heavy, filthy, sitting in the middle of a kitchen table.

I have a voice record session in an hour and a half, so I find a quiet place to have some breakfast. They have eggs, but I am trying to remember how to say I want them scrambled. I say "kak omlet" and the waiter thinks I want to order an omelette. No, I shake my head, making a stirring pattern with two fingers. "Tolka dva yaitsom" (just two eggs) I say, and he nods and says a word, maybe something like "meshayetsom" but I am just guessing. I shrug my shoulders, he wanders off.

The papers are pulled from my Ghurka.

I was looking for my fountain pen in the morning before I took Eva to school, half-laughing and half-sad that it was taking me so long to find it. "And you call yourself a writer." I said out loud, trying to squeeze some humor out of the moment. Drawers swung open, envelopes and ink pots, momentos and credit cards rattling around.

The pen is light in my hand. I think of that day in Florence when N bought it for me every time I use it. The pages stare back up at me, waiting for the final section of the final story to unfold. The work begins as always, a meditation, a brutal act of revision, a note about something missing, the need for connective tissue where the story disintegrates. A voice creeps up the back of my neck. "This is the best thing you have ever done." It tells me and I shrug it off. I don't like this voice because it must be wrong, or exaggerating. I must be capable of better than this, I tell myself, but first I have to finish this. But this book has no name. I have flirted with so many, making midnight calls to old friends saying "maybe this one" and they say "sure, that could work, that could be great, that could be a wonderful name". And I wake up the next day and the name sounds ridiculous to me, desperate, cheap, shallow. And then a few days later the same name sounds fine, but unassuming, lukewarm, forgettable.

The last story is about many things. One of them is a little boy. I remember a piece of his dialogue that I cut, noticing the phantom space where it used to be. The phrase is one he blurts out, angry, confused, proud. The tiny voice on the back of my neck says this should be the name of the book. I let the pen rest for a moment.

The food comes out. The eggs are scrambled.

I eat quickly, wondering if this new name works, if this title will end like all of the others, with a combination of shame and regret. I write it on an empty page of my notebook, as an official reminder of the moment.

After the record session I call N and tell her the name. She says it is worth considering. She has learned to manage my excited calls from the street with a cool grace. She steadies the boat.
The sun is coming out just a little and the streets are wet. I yank my hat off, feeling the air on my skin. The people all look as sad as ever, shoving down the sidewalks, thwacking their boots in the slush as they climb old broken stairs.

I see a stray dog in an empty lot. He looks up at me, with big wet eyes.
"Hey." I say to him, my voice sounding unfamiliar.
He noses the air, wondering if I have some food for him.
"Papa on the Moon." I call out to him.
He dips his chin, crosses one foot over the other.

02 February 2015

to be known

I was walking West in Times Square, where Broadway slices across 42nd Street, veering left creating that sliver next to Sixth Avenue. There was a green light so I sped past her. My camera thumped in the bag on my side as I raked against tourist shoulders making my way. Her face was painted white, red lips, giant arched eyebrows. A police man stood in the gutter, staring into traffic. The woman was talking, jabbing her finger into the cool, wet air facing North. Her face fell, as if she could not speak any more. 

I stopped, as people shoved past me. 

Turning back, I slid the Leica out of my bag, took a few readings with my light meter trying not to be obvious. I held back, predicting what was the best angle to shoot from, what place in the gutter would be safe from buses sloshing past me. When I am shooting, I go into a sort of trance and have no idea that cars want to park where I am kneeling. I forget my own name in these moments. Just ratios, guessing whether I should expose for the brights or the shadows, pure instinct and years of close calls. 

I choose to put the sun behind me. I learned that if I stand right in front of people they do not see me as they squint into the distance. I am just a silhouette. I pull the camera up to focus, lining up the ghost marks and then back down so they think I am just waiting on a friend.

She starts back up and I click three times. People are completely ignoring her. She is not an actor or a performance artist. She is doing this for some private reason, some urgent plan. I wonder if she is here every day, or every Thursday, or once a year. I wonder if this is her first time, or if she does the same on different corners. I step to the right, now shooting her from a 3/4 angle. 

She looks at me. I produce a small nod, a quiet smile. If she wants me to stop, I will. She stares right at me, words sputtering from her that I can only guess are Japanese. She shrugs once, repositions her feet like a horse waiting to race. I see the shadow of a bus coming and I step to the right more. Now the sun is coming at me, and she is in silhouette. I dance in a slow arc around her while she speaks. I have shot at least 10 frames. Normally I get one, maybe three at most. I am convinced that if I have taken a good picture, it should have happened by now. I tuck the camera in my pocket, cold, compact, heavy. I look at her, offering a relaxed face, not sure what I can say.

Her eyes grow wide, she chews into those words. I cannot tell if she is repeating them or if it is an epic spontaneous monologue for the tourists and the neon, for the police horses and the dump trucks. I nod once, a little thank you and then I walk back across the street. I will go West to the lions in front of the library and turn downtown.

We climb into the little bus, the mashrutka. The floor is slick, spotted with ash and salt. The driver looks up at me, his smile flashing a row of gold teeth, his wrinkles, the little tufts of hair messy around his forehead making him look like a bit like Julius Caesar.
 “Dobrei (morning)” I tell him and he nods dramatically, as I drop three ten ruble coins into his hand. E turns into the seat, and I sit next to her. She rests her face against my giant coat. 
“It’s the happy guy.” She tells me, here eyes closed against the bright lights inside the bus as we lurch into the darkness, rolling slowly across speed bumps, stopping for old women to climb inside before we turn left on the main road.
“He likes us.” I tell her, but I think she does not hear me, taking a cat nap before we trudge to school in ten minutes.
We tiptoe across swaths of ice, broken, lumped into grotesque swirls that we almost fall on a few times. Then Kutuzovsky, the accordion player in the underpass, then saying goodbye in the school lobby. 

My head kicks back in the cold air. I feel light, awake.

There is a line for the mashrutka that will take me home. It pulls up, windows steamed over, round women in furs and tall boots climbing out. It is the same driver. He mumbles something to me, smiling as he turns the radio up. I give him another three ten ruble coins. “Let My People Go” is playing on the speakers, the old sounds bleeding and cracking through them.
I close my eyes and lean my head against the glass. I think of strangers, random people  and how they just want to be acknowledged, to be noticed. And then, I understand that I feel the same way, that I want to be known.

26 January 2015

I love you both

There was a grimy, cold day five years ago. My boots sucking in the grey sludge slathered across the streets, I took E from school. She was four then, and had just started to speak English. I was living in a tiny apartment, sleeping on a foldout couch. Her room was an alcove that we strung some christmas lights over. She told me we lived in a castle. I was learning to see what she saw, to take joy in the simple act of waking up with her in the same place, just the two of us and the silence of morning. 

People were coming to dinner, a new friend and her daughter, and a stranger. A woman that spoke English. That was all I knew. 

I put some chickpeas on to boil, roasted a pepper in the electric oven that always smelled like something was burning. I washed the plates and tried to make order in the lopsided kitchen. E sat at the wobbly table drawing girls with one eye. 

The sky grew black above the busy street. At one point the doorbell rang.

E is nine now, coming up on ten. She sits at the kitchen table, a strong one, a new one. She draws with pencils now, not magic markers. There are little curli-cue letters in her tight handwriting, both Russian and English. I am rolling out pasta. I do this on every anniversary of this day. Some pumpkin is growing soft in a small pot. The kitchen smells of sweetness and good eggs. 

N comes home, her cheeks red from the cold wind. I never remind her what day it is, a little game of chance to see if she remembers. Of course, she does and has played the same trick on me. She saunters into the kitchen, says something like "nichiwo sebya" (its not nothing). The Russian language works in the negative, even when the expression is a gentle compliment.

The water boils, salted and ready. I lower it, making the ravioli on the counter, some bigger some smaller, placing them carefully on a cookie sheet dusted with a shake of polenta grains to keep them from sticking. E has hidden the card behind the kitchen drapes. N sits and watches me cooking. We are making little jokes. E is sitting on her knees, hands waving around, all smiles and snorts, chirping half in Russian half in English.

And then the food is on the table, a fresh bottle of wine uncorked and splashing into my glass, a final grate of pecorino, a twist of black pepper and I make a toast to the day we met. E hands her the card and then N hands it to me. It says "I love you both" at the end. 

19 January 2015

breathing out (the actress)

E hovers next to me as I build the camera in silence. She watches as I spin an allen key to mount the base plate. I move in slow methodical arcs, next the long rods and the follow focus. Knobs turn once, just tight enough to hold as the shoulder mount slides on, as the front grips find their place. And then things are tightened all the way. The monitor swivels onto the threads.
"Can I help?" She asks.
I ask her for two batteries and she crawls under the desk to the chargers.
"If they are green?" She asks.
"Green means done." I tell her quietly.
She lines them up on the edge of the table, hands on hips as I begin to turn things on, adjusting angles, loosening the tripod head and making test movements.
"It looks good, Pop." She tells me.
I break my concentration for a moment, staring at her. She looks older today, her nose, her eyes, her features suddenly less round, all coming together, a closer preview of what she will look like as a teenager, as a young woman. 
"Time for a coffee." I announce, turning things off.
"I'll make it!" She says, skipping to the kitchen. 

I spread some empty papers on the kitchen table and begin making a shot list. The coffee is the color of a camel and tastes perfect. E sits next to me, making notes on her own paper after I make mine.
"So, you'll help me." I explain. "I can forget some things when I have so many shots to do."
She nods, all business.

Next we line up the props, the old phone, the transistor radio, the ashtray, the Soviet comics. 

"There is one thing that will be tricky -." I begin. "How to get one shot of her on a trolley bus."
E's eyes grow wide.
"How are we gonna do that?" She asks me.
"Really fast." I answer.
"Ok." She says, sighing once and looking at the things on the table.

The shoot goes well. The actress has a face that transforms, that shines and twists, curves and disappears each time I move the camera. I shoot her reflection, as she looks at herself in the mirror slowly putting on makeup. 

I smile once to myself, proud of the shot on the monitor and that it is lit by nothing but two cheap lights from Ikea. 
E cranes her neck, sees the image and gives me a look of quiet approval. She likes to hold the reflector for me, a giant disc that is white on one side and silver on the other. I know she does not really understand the finer points of it, but she likes to hold it. I cannot tell her it is doing very little to change the shot.

The actress is cold, the trolley buses are full of people. N told me this would happen, and that getting a half-empty one would be a challenge. I look at them all sitting in the car as I lean into the street, watching for the next bus to arrive, predicting how full it will be as it approaches. I step outside of myself, see a man standing and the air of his breath making little clouds, his hands shoved in his pockets, the camera with nothing attached to it now, waiting with the power on in the bag, the little lights on top glowing in the darkness.

And then a half-empty bus comes and I wave my hands. The actress gets on first. I have to buy a ticket and lose a good minute trying to press the little piece of paper into the turnstile the right way. She glides back to help me, in her heels and trench coat. I slide into a seat across the aisle from her, nodding and saying nothing just pointing at the red light to show that I am shooting already. She acts with perfect instincts, glancing behind her, adjusting the wig, looking out at the street whipping past her, the lights lurid and distant. I breathe out through my nose trying not to bounce around on the rough street. I move, get one more take, and then we are off the bus and E and N are pulling up in the car behind us. The heat is blasting and I am already yanking a pot onto the stove for pasta, cracking open a forgotten bottle of wine, looking at their faces, looking at myself with dirt on my knees and sauce on the edge of my shirt, knowing that shooting is like breathing out when done well.