17 October 2016

not even a whisper

A parent/teacher meeting was announced at E's school. At 6:30 on a cold Friday night, we ducked into the building. The hallways were empty. The rows of lockers stood silent. She told me how many flights it was to her classroom as we climbed the stairs, our footsteps echoing. 

Out of twenty five children, only six other parents were there. They huddled around the teacher's desk, sweaters wrapped tight around them. I needed E to translate for me, so we made our way to the back of the room, hoping our whispers would not disturb anyone. We yanked our hats off, and settled in. I smelled ammonia and cheap perfume.

The teacher had a constant sigh stretched across her face. Her blonde hair hung limp against her ears. She stopped the joking chatter and cleared her throat. She talked about the boy that died, and how two weeks of investigation had uncovered the fact that he took some gum from a stranger on the school playground and there were narcotics in it. Nothing more. There was some additional warnings explained. The faces nodded, hands folded carefully over each other.
There were no questions.

The conversation turned quickly to the errors happening on the school website when grades are posted there. There were constant complaints from the mothers about homework assignments, about harsh grading from one teacher, then another teacher. The room filled with people talking over each other about math homework, a cacophony of pleas and examples raised. But for that 15 year old boy, not even a whisper.

10 October 2016

the playground

E comes home from school on Friday, and her normal smile of relief is not there. She is usually out of her school clothes in minutes, curled on the couch asking me what we are having for lunch. Today, she stands in the dark corridor, her shoulders hanging low. Her mouth opens, closes, nothing coming out. I ask her what happened.
"A boy, a boy from our school." She begins. "He died."
"How?" I ask. 
"There was a man in the playground, he gave him some gum and it had poison on it." She explains.
Her mouth twists around. 
"You knew him?" I ask. "What grade was he in?"
She nods once. 
"Seventh." She says at one point.
E leans against me for a bit. I rest a hand on the small of her back. 

Later, we will talk, as I make sure she knows not to take anything from anyone but of course she knows that but I say it anyway. There are calls to find out more about what happened, what there is to know. It turns out that none of this is on the news, that there is no police investigation, no hovering presence of guards on the school playground although there are hordes of them in the metro. The mothers are all sharing information, talking in private secure chats. But there is no official statement. 

The boy died and nothing changes. 

Nothing will happen except for stern words from parents to their children. There is talk that there is a gang behind these acts, that they have been doing this all over the city. But there is nothing in the news about it. Well, the news stopped being the news a few years ago. 

E is processing things. There are no tears, no nightmares. I wonder if living here has insulated her, or worn her down until she simply accepts whatever random act she is presented with as inevitable. 

03 October 2016

orphans and old bones

Sometimes, you find yourself with a handful of frames left at the end of a roll. They can linger for days, even weeks while the distractions of daily life upstage them. They can nag at you in the middle of a conversation as your mind flits to the shots you made, and how the proof of their success is delayed by them. It is a version of finish your vegetables, or no dessert as you sit at the table - stubborn, unyielding.

I call them orphans, the pictures made with these last frames. They are rushed afterthoughts. They are throw-aways, and you are always ready for them to be junk, filler and stillborn.

And yet, they have a life of their own. There is that great expression about trying too hard and how that can lead to making nothing, and about letting things happen all by themselves instead. Something about listening and shutting up for once. Something about not overthinking things.

There is an empty playground in front of our apartment, overgrown with weeds. Some department dug a giant hole there and pulled some old pipes from the earth. They sit, muddy and rusting for weeks now.  The hole remains, like a lost tooth that did not have a new one waiting to grow underneath it. I take pictures of that place like it will disappear tomorrow.

On the way to the film lab I have five shots left as I pass the apartment we used to live in, behind the train station. I get out early, thinking of a strange little garden someone designed there. A pair of white cranes made from metal and wood sit in the tall grass. A tiny stone bridge that crosses no water, just a bare spot of the lawn. I walk behind the building and take three pictures of them. There are a collection of old garages behind them, gray painted walls and slabs of old metal, creating an alley that leads to nowhere. A dead end. I take the last two pictures here, kneeling on the ground to pull a puddle into frame on the last one. And then, I am yanking myself up walking fast to the metro like I just robbed a bank.

A young man runs up to me. He wears army fatigues and speaks quickly. I do not understand him for a moment, then catch that he wants to know why I was taking pictures of the garages. "Don't worry!" I say with a flourish, cracking a smile. "I am an artist!" He stares at me, as if this is not one of the excuses he could have imagined I would offer. I nod, smile and leave. He stands there, lost.

Later, I find out that there are men that do sneak onto property, photographing old structures, even if they are allowed, and the property is owned by the building. The new mayor can bulldoze them all down in one night, without warning or debate. His excuse? He is making Moscow more beautiful. I know of garages and little shops all gone in a day, just the naked bones of their walls left behind, like the white skin around your hips next to a sunburn.

26 September 2016

that good tired

6AM on a Sunday, and I am lurching from the bed. The bags are all packed. Camera, lenses, freshly charged batteries and tripod sit in a neat row by the front door. They are waiting patiently for me to eat something, to splash water on my face until things connect. The phone rings, Alexander will be here soon. The baby is sleeping in such a perfect pose. N is curled around her, in the fuzziest pink blanket. I tiptoe back into the room, because I forgot my lucky shirt, the one I wear on flights. It hangs wrinkled and lopsided in the closet, but I put it on all the same.

We are quickly off the main road, and driving in some secret, forgotten corner of Moscow. There are dogs barking, a horse and rider moving slowly, looking back at us just once. The trees look strange here, like they are from Mars. The main road is close, a steady hum of traffic bleeds across so there is no way we can shoot any scenes with sound here, but take that invisible traffic noise away and we could be anywhere - some barren, lost corner of the world. That is one thing I need for Blackbetty - to turn a busy city into an empty one. 

Later, we are driving in an old business district. There are old bricks slathered with a hundred layers of paint. There are no straight lines here, just sagging, curving, bending walls that finger off into the distance. There are trolley cars on metal wheels, still running up and down the tracks that shine along the asphalt. There are filthy windows, reflecting nothing. There are steps to closed doors. A bus stop sits, empty and patient. We try to capture it all, hustling up and down the main road before the sidewalks fill with people, before cars are barreling up and down the roads.

And then we are done. Back at home, the bags are slung across my shoulders, the warm goodbye, the ritual of making a film with the same people often transforming into such an unspoken shorthand, a nod, a moment when you lean your head to one side and you have said everything. 

Upstairs I eat a second breakfast. The baby is smiling at me. She wants to steal my orange cap.  I sit and sigh and feel that good tired, that peaceful exhaustion after you accomplish something. 

19 September 2016

Their dogs must be barking

The news comes, and I am not here. I am not bleary eyed in Moscow, my legs sluggish beneath me. No, I am back home. I am looking at faces in the street, eyes hanging longer than normal looking for some nibble of recognition. The taxis are still barreling down Broadway. The steam still rises from giant orange candy cane vents on 14th street. There is a low wind, and I pull by collar tight against it. There is a smell in the air, of wet leaves and cherry pipe tobacco. 

In the bathroom, my ragged face looks back. I make coffee. My feet are cold on the tile floor. 

I know that exact spot on 23rd street. There is a whole building where blind people live there. They have group activities on the first floor, and little rooms where they can meet with people and do things like dictate letters for them to send, or have their mail read to them. There is a bowling alley for the blind in the basement. I remember the thunderous sound of balls and pins and laughter from the last time I was down there, over 20 years ago. It was suggested to me to make a little documentary about the place, and I felt overwhelmed. I visited a few times a week, looking for an in, a way to tell something noble and kind without devices. Everything felt cheap, easy. I never did anything but visit, and talk to people but maybe that is all I was capable of at the time. 

Their dogs must be barking, I think. They must be asking questions, hands whipping in the air. There must be a terrible chemical smell coming up from the street. 

In Moscow, I can just read the news. I can just sit at the kitchen table until the baby wakes up and then play with her, sitting on my belly as we make faces at each other while I try to blot out everything else.

12 September 2016

the road to the parade

They rehearsed the night before, with loudspeakers so big I could hear everything perfectly even with the windows closed, over a mile away. It must be deafening, up close. I imagined old war heroes with medals strewn across their chests would be there the next day, celebrating the city's birthday. There could be toddlers with little flags waving in their hands. Maybe a few drunk uncles, their cheeks red, voices hoarse from cheering. 

I put both Leica bodies in my bag, color film, black and white film. Downstairs, I called N and told her not to worry, that I would be careful, that I had all of my documents with me. I headed into the little forest along the path that would lead to the celebration, a path I had never travelled on. The music from those giant speakers wobbled into the trees, bad wedding party music with pumping beats and swooning oohs and aaaahs. I followed a handful of young people now, as they approached some railroad tracks and crawled through the space between two freight cars. I looked back, then both ways. No one was around. I followed them, from a distance and then climbed a steep hill. There were police men waiting at the top of it, behind white plastic tape that stretched from tree to tree. 
"It's a tourniquet." 
I think that's what one of them said, as they turned back and trotted back down the hill raising dust around their ankles. 

I saw a man walking along the top of the ridge, with some purpose in his stride, so I followed him. Tree limbs soon swatted at my face. There was a sort of short cliff, and a steep face of rocks below it. I saw him jump down, grabbing at roots and bushes to slow his fall. I looked back, and thought of those old generals showing up. Pulling the bag close to my back I followed him. Dirt clogged my fingernails. I smelled rust and mud, and the ozone of an electric train. The man had climbed a fence and was scrambling up a gravel hill. 

I stopped. 

It would be no good for me to get found here, with documents or not, hopping a fence like him. I kept going, imagining there was a left turn that would open up. And then I found myself in a grassy hollow, looking up at wires and hearing a train rumbling close. Yes, I was about to walk along the tracks into a station, which would surely be a problem. I could imagine the look on the security guards' faces. No, time to turn back and somehow get back up that cliff. 

I scrambled back up, sweating, arms itching from dirt and bark scrapes. I headed back to that first point and kept going past the guards.

I came to a stairway and more police. They stared at me. I asked if the entrance was closed and they said no. But how to get across? They told me to climb over the railing. My bags were checked. I walked through a metal detector. I stood with my arms out, as they waved one of those airport wands around. And then I went in. It could have been so simple, if I had not followed that man, or those kids. 

Inside, the music blared and voices shouted over and over again, Moscow Moscow hurrah hurrah. But I could not approach the crowds because only students could go past the barricades, and they all had ID tags hanging from their necks. There were no war heroes, just fat ladies on benches licking their ice cream cones. There were clumps of young soldiers, their suits awkward, too big for them. 

I wandered off, taking a few random pictures. A man sitting at a tent where no one was competing for the string of stuffed animals that swung in the wind. An old couple walking past a giant monument of St. George cutting the head off a dragon. 

05 September 2016

not yet

It is far too simple to say she is growing up too fast. Maybe it is better to say, too quickly for me to adjust to. It was only a year ago that she had long hair, and a sort of shy grace. Now her hands wave around in the air when she talks, as if she is whipping egg whites with them. Her smile hides behind nothing now, hair shorter and shorter until she gets mistaken for a boy. Well, that's just how people think here, where girls her age still wear a giant bow that perches on the top of their head for the first day of school. She wears a black plastic choker instead. 

It is not the external changes that throw me. She was going to grow into a woman eventually, and as it happens in leaps and bursts I do not feel any turns in my stomach or wishes for her to stay a little peanut, my sidekick off on another rainy day adventure. It's not that. It is the growing independence, the "I'm going to go outside with a girl from my class for a few hours" that throws me. And of course I want her to have friends, especially good ones. It is the fact that she never did this before, this skipping down the stairs alone. It is the closed door of her bedroom. It is the odd absence in the house that afternoon, as I work and write and stare out the windows before starting dinner. It is the feeling that she is gone, even for a few hours. I want her to be independent, I coax her to do things by herself, but the knife cuts both ways. 

That growing personal life, the acres of secrets and ideas and diaries - it gives me a little bit of vertigo. There was a day when I knew everything going on in her head, so I could play damage control, cleaning up the messes and weathering the storms with her hand in mine. But now, she chews on things herself. I wasn't ready for that just yet.