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. 





29 August 2016

Ouroboros


The city feels like a windowsill full of dead flies. Yes, the sun still pushes through the trees and long into rooms, fingering the edges of tables and piles of dusty books. The trolley buses lurch up and down the empty streets, all clanging metal and thick layers of paint that fall off like shingles. I used to take pictures of makeshift ashtrays left in the corridors, typically a certain can of peas painted with grey ash. The elevator doors bang open, empty. There are low voices in the stairwell, and the shuffling of feet in slippers. The snake is eating its own tail, day after day here. But does it really reinvent itself each time? Does it change at all after dying and being reborn? 

A man sleeps on a bench. The Leica is hanging loose by my side and I decide I will take one more picture of a drunk, his red cheeks dappled by the leaves moving in the breeze. A giant truck rumbles past, spraying water on the street. They do this here randomly, even spraying water when it is raining. I do not pretend to understand anything about this place any more. The man does not flinch, even as some of the spray reaches his sweaty hair. I move behind him, seeing his black hat perched on the corner, hovering above his cane. I take a few more, hearing the quiet sound of my own breath, noticing how I hold it at the moment I click, an old habit I learned to be more steady. And then the camera hides in my bag as someone is approaching. I step high over the fence, and disappear down a side street. 

There is construction going on here, great piles of dirt and orange plastic are stretched across things in a zig-zagging makeshift fence. The machines stand still, forgotten yellow beasts crusted with mud. They will sit like this all weekend, I think or maybe longer.  







22 August 2016

late summer


Late summer is dragging its heels. There are sluggish chainsaws during the day, whacking all of those fallen trees to bits. It takes them hours, but there is no rush. There are men in orange vests with weedwhackers around the schools. That day is coming, the cool morning, the freshly pressed shirts, the bag lunch, the fast kiss on the forehead. E is ready, but not ready all at the same time. I think she retreats the same as I do, hiding in the afternoons deep in thought, researching something obscure instead of facing the immediate future.

There are more rainstorms, more flooded streets. The trees outside the windows bend in the same impossible arc, not snapping, not splintering but coming back and then doing it all over the again. The wind howls, and the baby still sleeps. I find myself scribbling thoughts in the middle of the night,  yanking myself out of a sound sleep my eyes almost tearing up as the bright lights are too much for them. They are dark, black ideas. A few days ago I learned about the words above the entrance to Auschwitz for example Arbeit macht frei, or "work sets you free". The terrifying logic of this quote hovers in the air, cutting two ways at once. I do not take the writing process of Blackbetty lightly, and these are the waters I have dipped into. What fruit they will bear, and how, that is the job at hand in these late summer days.

To refresh my thoughts, I pull the camera bag across my shoulder and walk to Sparrow Hills, an outlook high above the rest of Moscow, where people visit on a Sunday to take family pictures, where nostalgic wedding parties stop and drink cheap champagne from plastic cups. I have this idea to take pictures of people taking pictures. There are young boys standing on a railing, flexing their biceps until the faces nod, that the image was indeed taken. A teenage couple mash their faces together as their bikes lean slack against the railing. Her arms hang loose around his neck. He buries his face in her shirt. They kiss again, her with one eye open seeing who is watching them. 

The clouds are packed up in the sky. The trees are still green. A motorcycle roars past. I slip the camera back into the bag. 

Time to go home, and back to work.





15 August 2016

faces (a flood)


Long before the sun came up, there was the pinging sound of rain slapping against the aluminum siding on the balcony. Hollow and soprano, it woke me. I lean against walls as balance returns, making my way to get a glass of water seeing my face for a moment in the bathroom mirror and I do not recognize it. I know it is me, the dark circles under the eyes, the fringe of hair around the ears, the grey hairs sprouting in-between the black but for some time now I have not felt like that face. It is foreign to me, a shadow, an imagined person. It is not something to struggle with, but simply something to ignore. I know the sound of my laugh. I know the sound of my voice late at night in the kitchen with a drink in one hand, swirling the ice cubes as they wither. That is who I am.

V is sticking her hands through these stacking rings while sitting on my belly, and some are too small for her to squeeze into. I try to tell her that she grew, that she got bigger. She looks at me, chewing on this, the ideas turning around in her little mind. She sticks her hand into the biggest one, the green one. She brandishes it in the air like a trophy, her improvised bracelet. She laughs with such satisfaction, "Woho." 

In the kitchen, N is scraping a quail's egg through a sieve as part of V's breakfast. Her hair has gotten long, and strands fall into her face which she blows at from the side of her mouth. She had hair a bit like this when we met, when her face was rounder, when she was nervous and shy, biting her lip, waving her hands in the air with a library of bracelets dancing around them. Now she is my sharp-tongued wife, somehow taller and more beautiful, the confident mother, her head-tipped back laugh more like a swan than a person when I buy pants the wrong size, or when I throw out a blanket by accident. I like how her face changes. 

Eventually E wakes up, her hair smashed down like a paint brush left at the bottom of a cup overnight. She plays with V, stares into the fridge and takes nothing out, wanders in and out for some time until actually eating anything. She finally lost one of her front teeth, a few years too late. I like when her smile flashes and I see that gap, even though I know she is embarrassed. There is nothing like seeing your child's broken, messy smile. 

The rain is hammering into the trees. The streets are flooded. The center is closed and we will not go out to dinner tonight, even if it is my birthday. I head out with E in our long boots by afternoon, the sidewalk a low river for the first ten minutes. A tree has fallen across the path and we climb over it. And then, a bouquet of wildflowers rests on a low fence, as if someone abandoned them at the sight of the tree. I stare at them, entertaining the reasons behind them, imagining what drama unfolded to create such an odd result. I look around, and no one is stalking off, no one is crying or looking over their shoulder. Cold rain seeps down the back of my neck and we head towards the main road, where the bus will come and splash high above the giant puddles, bringing us to the market where I can buy pumpkin and fresh thyme, semolina flour and a good bottle of wine for dinner. 








08 August 2016

the reward for silence (a different person)


It is hard for anyone to appreciate the sense of stagnation here. There are plenty of countries where the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. Everyone in this world struggles to carve out their own hearth and bed, their own green-grassed backyard. That is not what I mean. Here, the days pass slowly. Here, things stand broken for months, even years before they are fixed and no one complains. It is that mute response that throws me, that lack of outcry, that absence of righteous opinion. Yes, behind closed doors, people speak in low voices to a handful of trustworthy ears. But who says in public "that is wrong". No one.

Almost nine years here and I still cannot swallow that bitter pill. On the playground, in the street, on the trolley bus there are trespasses, there are people running wild over lines that have been drawn and no one says a word. It is a survival mechanism, a means to an end. I often tell myself to take the high road, which may indeed involve rising above some petty misdeed. Maybe there are more important things than saying "that is wrong". Maybe going home to your family, safe and sound is the other side of that coin. Maybe sleeping well is the reward for silence.

I was raised on a fable - that hard work, that sweat and grit and guts were what it takes to accomplish things, that the labor was noble in and of itself. But what if being invisible accomplishes the same things in the end? What if that gets you there? Swallowing pride and honor, in the name of securing safe passage - is that so terrible? Some worlds are more dangerous than others, and who am I to judge?

When I go to New York for a week I might as well have gone to Mars by the time I get back. Everything outside of here is so upside-down, so opposite, so backwards. Straddling both worlds is some kind of magic trick, like jumping back and forth across a river so quickly that you are in two places at the same time, a different person on each edge.