Sunday, October 18, 2020

Turns of Phrase

A surge of golden finery

I’m gob smacked by turns of phrase that transcend the ordinary and lift a story into the lofty realm of literary non-fiction. It’s so much more than telling the story. It’s turning text into prose. This dawning was prompted by a masterful article entitled In My Mountain Town, We’re Preparing for Dark Times by Christopher Solomon in Sunday’s New York Times. Solomon, a contributing editor for Outside Magazine, crafted something special in his tale of fall’s arrival in tiny Twisp, Washington. I have longed to type the name Twisp, a town of 910 in the Cascade Mountains. 

As I read the article for the third time I began reading aloud from Solomon’s extraordinary piece. Each phrase was a nugget that’s the level of writing to which I aspire. Then I mined my own words to uncover my own jewels if there are any. I want to polish my own words to approach his stratospheric achievement. It’s so so good. 

And I quote: “where winds shake the aspens’ first golden coins to the ground.” I might have described the leaves on our aspens as “golden discs.” This shows the narrow difference between functional and poetic. 

“At the river, the water runs skinny but runs cold again with the return of freezing nights.” Skinny takes it to another level.

“and the fishing is good in the squinting hours around sunrise.” Good God. 

“It is autumn again in the mountains of the West, and what is not gracefully dying is desperate to live.”

Or, “October’s yellow afternoons smell of winter at the edges.” I'd have said “There’s hint of winter on a cold fall morning.” Yawn. 

“The soft ovation of the cottonwoods sends another round of leaves adrift on the water.” Not “the rustle of the cottonwoods.” Ovation. 

And, “We take ridgeline hikes among larch the color of struck matches…" My favorite.

“The woodcutter’s saw screams in the quiet forest.” 

“The fish lurches to the fly.” 

“I stand in the river, ice water girding my hips…” 

“And so, my friends and I fish too long when we should be picking the last frost-sweetened plums.” 

We tear at the days immoderately, like animals, and we wolf them down, hoping to fill a hole we see yawning ahead. Hell, the whole damn passage. 

And finally, “We are laying by memories for winter, as the bear puts on fat,” What a poetic analogy that is. 

As I took stock of my recent writing, I found a handful of phrases that that teased the possibilities. That affirmation drives me to a craft works in which very phrase is a pearl. 

In my latest article for Shadow and Light Magazine, the one called 110 Degrees in the Shade, I wrote: 

“I stood in the rubble beneath a half-missing roof and listened to the wind whistle through cracks in the plywood and tarpaper walls.” 

"The wind howls, the sand drifts through the porous siding. 

“There’s quiet despair in the silence of dashed dreams.”

“…where meals where shared, and love was made.” 

“Then the laughter and anger that happened within these walls disappeared into the creeping sand of the unforgiving Mojave.” 

Christopher Solomon’s miraculous examples and the best of what I’ve written give me a target. And hope. They suggest that I can write at another level. That becomes my dream. 

Long ago I read that if you want to write creatively you need to write daily for at least two hours. The admonition says the you must sequester yourself in your writing space and can’t leave until you’ve written something and that, even if you stare at the screen for the full 120 minutes, you can’t leave your cell. That was years ago, and I’ve done it precisely once. The results from that single effort were promising. And yet nothing since.

Solomon’s superb craftsmanship, or talent, gave me a jolt of energy. Reading his rippling words tells me to weave memorable phrases into meaningful stories. 

There is functional writing that gets the job done, there is craft and there is work with a definable voice. The same is true of making music or making a singular photograph. There is skill, it seems to me, and then there is talent and beyond that something otherworldly. Since high school I’ve been told that I should write. Writing competently is easy for me but I haven’t been moved to polish my skills into something above workmanlike, if indeed that’s possible. The same is true of mastering finger style guitar or mastering anything for that matter. In 1960 I was a competent rhythm guitar player who was satisfied to accompany my vocals. Not only have I not grown as a player, but my entire repertoire is sixty years old. It’s so old that it would be new to an audience today. 

My pipes have descended into a raspy whisper and I now I struggle with the three-finger tremolo I once mastered.  I guess you have to practice. Yet the brain remains facile and overflowing with fodder for a real creative writing push. 

I’ve booked my office for the prime 9 to11am time slot today. Visitors Prohibited.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

My end of the story

West Janssen and a frosty Dr. Pepper outside Williams, AZ,

I don’t know where to start. The Deaf Drummer’s last week was a whipsaw of events. First, I learned that West Janssen was embarking on a farewell tour. His plan was to walk to Chicago from Arizona and play his drums for donations in towns across America’s heartland. I encouraged him to wait till spring and avoid the frigid upper Midwest winter. Then I found out he had already started, was robbed of everything including his prized drum kit in Des Moines, was helped out by a church and locals who put him up in a hotel and bought him a bus ticket to Denver where he may be now. That’s one hell of a week. Presumably, the thieving driver picked him up by the side of Highway 64 above Williams, AZ, drove him as far as Des Moines, took all his worldly possessions and left him stranded. That’s one step shy of tragic. But he’s safe for now as far as I know, and I assume he’ll continue is some fashion to Chicago. I have no idea really.

I learned from comments made to West’s Facebook Messenger report of the stolen drum kit that it’s not the first time his he’s drums have been purloined. The country musician who bought the latest kit for him offered her condolences.

Both of us have had visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads. We each harbored the dream of telling West’s incredible life story. Maybe West saw me as a typist. He’s not fond of keyboards. I have zero interest in being a typist or stenographer for somebody else’s words. That, it seems to me, leaves us at cross-purposes and seemingly at the end of our nascent writing partnership. When West suggested that I pay him for the rights to his story the T’s were crossed, the I’s dotted and that’s the end of it.

“Well now is a good time about you wanting to buy my story or something like that? Could use the money.” he wrote.  Or earlier, “I’m sorry I don’t understand your offer. Can you explain how this work? Buy a piece of my story. etc. I have no clue what you’re saying…..” 

I don’t have a clue either West. Just feeling my way through uncharted waters like you.

West and I had different ideas about our possible collaboration. At some point he told me that he wanted somebody to help tell his story. I took that to mean that I’d interview him, edit his words, and weave a cohesive biography. I was excited to do so.

Sunday, I told West, “I’m not prepared to pay you for your story. Even if I wanted to tell your story it would be in my voice, it would be subject to my interpretation and possibly not true to your recollections or dreams. I am, as I told you after my first Deaf Drummer post, not a slave to factual accuracy. I’ll let the story lead me. I’ll slice and dice that sucker till it pleases an audience of one. I hope I haven’t misled you. I never considered paying for your story. I lose money on my writing and photography. My audience is small. I do it because it’s what I do. When you have a mailing address, I will send you some money to help out.       

So, I’m withdrawing my offer to tell or interpret your story. I may do a post about your fateful week but that will be the end of it. If I write a lengthier story and I get it published I will share the proceeds with you. But don’t expect it. Usually I don’t follow through.”

Rudy Mauldin at his ranch near Cline's Corner, NM.

Luis Ocejo in Llano San Juan, NM.

For 650 straight weeks I have told a story in my blog. The blog is a collection of stories. Some of the best were prompted by a chance meeting like mine with West. These are the stories I like best, the ones where I synthesize what I hear, what I see and what I feel in a few minutes. Sometimes the result is a robust picture of the subject. It’s been my experience that folks tell you what’s most important to them in their first few sentences. It happened with West who told me how he sat down at a drum kit in church when he was a child and knew how to play from the get-go. Or a year ago when cowboy and rancher Rudy Mauldin told me about being bullied in high school on the Pojoaque Pueblo and his years as a BLM detective bringing looters of Native American artifacts to justice. And Luis Ocejo standing in front of the church in Llano San Juan after Sunday services and telling me, “There’s nothing tougher than a Viet Nam combat veteran.” He wore that pride on his sleeve. It oozed from the man. It was clearly the most important thing in his life.

My byline in Shadow and Light magazine is called Telling Stories. It’s apt since that’s what I want to do. Nothing exhilarates me more than meeting a stranger, listening to what they say about themselves and forming an understanding of who they are. West is a riddle that I didn’t solve. His story in his words seems part real and part mystical. The episodes he recounts are fantastical yet believable. I hope he’s able to share his story with a larger audience.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Let's be better humans

I was photographing an abandoned homestead off Highway 180 near Valle, AZ when a woman in a blue pickup truck pulled up beside me. She asked, “What are doing?”

Slightly nervous I responded,” Am I trespassing? Is this private property?”

She said, “Heavens no. This is a public road.”

I told her that this was my kind of subject; forlorn and forgotten.

She told me “If you like this. Go back to the highway, hang a left and turn right at the next dirt road and you’ll a graveyard of old cars.

We fell into an easy conversation and I learned that she and her partner had recently settled near Valle. She told me that they moved from Bar Harbor, Maine. That’s where she was born and raised. I told her we had lived in New England for 30 years and that Maine was one of our favorite places. In fact, I continued, if we didn’t live in New Mexico it could easily be Maine. And I have a buddy in South Thomaston near Rockland.

I asked, “Jessie, can I take your picture?

She said, “Sure,” but seemed surprised when I used her name.  She quickly covered up the name tag on her Standard Oil jersey and gave me a nervous smile. I took half a dozen shots and Jessie left the scene.

She said they had spent one Maine winter in a Class C RV that wasn’t insulated, and they almost froze to death. Then they looked west and found an affordable patch of scrub nearby and settled in Valle. She said the place was a boomtown. That’s not precisely what I’d call it. Valle may be cheap, but Valle is Godforsaken and every residence is a trailer. The desert between Williams and the Grand Canyon is the ugliest in North America. I do not see the appeal.

Before stopping to photograph the dilapidated house I had stopped to photograph the remains of a barnlike structure a few miles back. I’d seen it on my way to Flagstaff on Highway 180 earlier that day. After buying my Wranglers Retro jeans at the Boot Barn in Flag I headed back on 180 to Grand Canyon with a stop to shoot the abandoned barn. 

The interior of the fallow edifice told stories on its graffitied walls and in the detritus of the squatters who once filled the emptiness. The stenciled message on the concrete floor was an unexpected counterpoint to the desperation that haunts it.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

West Janssen . Deaf Drummer

The day we left the Grand Canyon we drove south to Williams, AZ. I had forgotten about the drummer Peggy saw by the side of the road nine days before. This time when we’d almost reached Williams Peggy asked, “Did you see the drummer back a couple of miles?” I replied that I had not. It's good to have a spotter. I hesitated to turn around as I am wont to do. I am not a patient photographer. But I yielded to my better self and went back to see the musical novelty.

Sure enough a couple of miles north on the east side of Highway 62 a guy was dozing behind an impressive drum kit. Before him was a sign saying Deaf Drummer in Facebook, Donations OK. After all of my years of street photography I’m still leery about approaching subjects directly. But the Donations OK on the sign signaled the drummer’s willingness to be photographed. I folded a ten spot and put in my shirt pocket. As Peggy and I approached the musician looked up and greeted us.

I asked, “How’re you doing? Do you mind if I take your picture?” and handed him the ten. He said. "Not at all. Go for it.”

He picked up his sticks and began to play to the baseline in his head, so I’d get some action. After five minutes or so we began talking about the unlikely concept of a drummer that can’t hear. It's something I've read about but hadn't witnessed.

I asked, “How do you do it? Do you hear something.”

He responded “No. I’m completely deaf. I feel the vibration of what's being played.”

He told me that he could even tell the kind of music: country, rock, blues, you name it.

“How did this all happen?” I asked.

He told me that he grew up in Sunnyslope, a suburb of Phoenix. I said that I knew it well since both Peggy and I had Phoenix roots.

He continued that his mother was deeply religious and that they went to church every day. On one of those visits he saw a set of drums and began to play them.

His mother asked. “How did you learn to do that?

He told her he didn’t know. He just could.

She replied angrily, “Don’t lie to me in the house of God.”

When we were ready to leave I thanked him and gave him my card. He picked up a piece of note paper and wrote “West Janssen” his personal Facebook page and "Deaf Drummer", his group page. I said I’d Friend him and post any worthwhile images. He thanked me, stood up and approached me.

He said, “It’s really hot. Would you get me a big soda? There’s gas station two miles south toward Williams.”

I told him, “Sure, I’d be happy to. What kind do you want?”

He replied, “Dr. Pepper” and reached into his pocket.

I waved it off. "No. I'll get it."

We drove to the station to fill up and returned with an icy soda.

I’ve been thinking about happenstance, of chance encounters. I’ve been contemplating the miracle of learning one unique human being's story. West Janssen exemplified that miracle. I want to learn and share more stories. You have to be there to get the story. Then you need to listen.

West and I started a Facebook conversation. 

West posted that "The country singer Erica Sunshine Lee had bought me those drums for me as my other drums were literally falling apart....she stopped by just like Steve and I guess I inspired her enough that she gave me a phone call one day and made a donation and traveled many miles back to me and literally gave it to me."

I responded, "Thanks for adding to your captivating story, West. Sometime I'd like to learn more."

West told me, "Ask any questions and I'll tell you a story...I have a story behind every story that leads to a story. And none of it is made up or a fish's all truth...I do need a writer."

You are a writer, West.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Time will tell

Juniper at Mather Point

Peggy painting at Yaki Point

Whether it’s because I really don’t like monumental subjects or don’t feel that I can photograph them successfully, I find myself resorting to lesser subjects when photographing the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Oh, I’ll toss a few canyon vistas at you but it’s the tangled shapes of junipers at the canyon’s edge that get my attention. I’m writing this post on Saturday in hopes of getting in a longish run and being packed for the drive home first thing Sunday morning.

Juniper and canyon vista

Long mesa from Pima Point

I’m energized by the fact that I’m running as if I hadn’t broken my hip three months ago. My balance is off kilter, however, and my fear of heights has come roaring back. It's always bothered me but this is abject terror. It tried to hike the South Kaibab Trail midweek and nearly froze at the two thousand foot precipice four feet to my right. I'm lucky I didn't crawl back up the hill.

The realization that I can do whatever the hell I want to do when we get back to Taos makes me giddy. Of course, that’s always been the case. I just haven’t taken advantage of it. This time, I tell myself, it will be different. And the siren song of the open road beckons. Gotta dust off the forty year old Porsche.

Peggy painting a twisted juniper at Pima Point

Peggy's wall at the Kolb Studio. Part of the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art and the centenary of the park

I'm pleased to report that though the final tally is not yet in, sales at the Celebration of Art have been strong despite it being for the most part a virtual exhibition. Peggy's second quick draw painting sold immediately Friday evening and her online auction piece sold after a number of bids. And that doesn't account for her 30" x 40" studio piece which may have a buyer. That sale would be sweet. And there are another eight paintings that will be for sale at the Kolb Studio and online until January. I'm wicked proud as we say in Boston.

It’s been a time of loss in America. Two heroic human beings have left our midst. First, civil rights icon John Lewis departed this earth and now Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said goodbye. Lewis was unrelenting in his pursuit of the equal treatment of black Americans. He was a saintly soul. And Bader-Ginsburg who felt the sting of a different kind of prejudice, that of being as woman and of being Jewish, fought ferociously for the equality of women. Both are losses that I feel more deeply than any that I can remember. We are poorer for their passing.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

One Grand Birthday

The night before a recent birthday I was a pissed off old man. I’d lost half of my 78th year to a drumbeat of injuries and my back barked like a junkyard dog when we walked up and down Williams, AZ’s Main Street looking for a take-out meal worthy of a condemned man. Failing that and still unwilling to eat in a restaurant, we found ourselves sitting on our king size bed eating super market chicken wings and packaged salads accompanied by a single bottle of amber ale and a glass of the Barefoot Pinot Grigio, the world’s worst, too sweet swill. We left the rest of the bottle for some unfortunate housekeeper. Celebratory it wasn’t.

Not being able to enjoy the conviviality of a good restaurant or bar really sucks. On a birthday it's criminal. That only added to my peevishness. 

The next morning Peggy and I enjoyed a birthday brunch consisting of a supermarket yogurt parfait and a Starbucks egg, ham, and cheese muffin thingee which we ate in the car before buying groceries for our ten days at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Oddly, that was hilarious.

Peggy’s ten-day invitational painting event, The Grand Canyon Celebration of Art, is why we’re here. I piloted the much needed support vehicle. One CRV couldn’t possibly carry all her finished work, frames, canvasses, and personal gear. Plus, it was an excuse to get out of Dodge.

he icing on the cake is that our son, Garrett, and his wife, Michelle, were with us for the weekend so he and I could celebrate our birthdays together. His 53rd was September 8 and my 69th was September 11. Hey, I was 69 on September 11

Our incredible time with Garrett and Michelle included a birthday bash of microwaved dinners, salad, and a remarkably good Tuxedo Cake from the Safeway in Williams. Are we seeing a trend here? We shared that bounty in our trim little studio apartment in the Park’s Albright Training Center.

They are such thoughtful gift givers. I was truly touched. Michelle’s gift, Rick McCloskey’s photo book Van Nuys Blvd 1972 took us back to the place we lived from 1968 through 1970. That was the heady time of muscle cars, short shorts, and Wednesday’s Cruise Night on Van Nuys Boulevard. Our house was two blocks from the terminus of the Cruise at the corner of Van Nuys and Victory Boulevard. I can hear the rumble of monster V8s with glasspack mufflers to this day.

The Cruise was the place to be seen in the Valley, the place to cruise chicks and showcase your ride. Horsepower was the currency of the era. The era ended, I discovered in McCloskey’s book, by the start of the 80’s. The skyrocketing price of gas, gas shortages and complaints from the business community slowly ended, “what was once the spontaneous use of the public space by so many young people.” McCloskey’s remarkable photographs froze that tradition in time.

Cruise Night was a vital part of coming of age in the fifties for me. In Phoenix we cruised Central Avenue, the main north-south ‘boulevard’ in center of the city, before parking at Bob’s Big Boy which offered carhop service. Cruising was a right of passage for a teenager in 1958. The goal was to pick up girls though in my case it ever happened. I’ll blame it my tan 1950 Ford four door sedan with a flat head six. I’m embarrassed to this day.

I will not share the specifics of Garrett’s gift because it was so extravagant and loving that it brought lump to my throat. I am fortunate to have such a smart, caring, and principled son. I can say, “I am not worthy,” and mean every word.

The significance of his gift feels like a sea change, the one in which a father and son become peers. It’s a proud moment and an odd transition at the same time. For 50 some odd years you imagine that you need to protect your kids long after they're more competent and accomplished than you are. Then at some magic moment the pendulum swings the other way and they start worrying about you and your shallow (one hopes) decline.

And while I'm bragging about Garrett and his smart, caring and principled wife Michelle let it be known that Sunday they did a rugged nine mile hike down to and back up from Skeleton Point on the South Kaibab Trail. Then they added a rim hike at Yaki Point for a total of 23,000 steps and 13 miles according to Michelle's Apple watch. She said her pulse averaged 148 on the uphill stretch of the Kaibab.

I'm almost glad they didn't invite me. I'd probably still be at Skeleton Point. That was a transitional moment, too. It was the first time in my life I wasn't sure that I could keep up with the youngsters.The first time I didn't just know that I could. That's a realization I have to examine closely. Can I or can't I do that physical act anymore?

I'll find out shortly.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

110 Degrees in the Shade

What started out as a photo excursion to Joshua Tree National Park in the heart of the Mojave Desert turned out to be the discovery and exploration of a scattering of decaying houses strewn across the Morongo Basin. These unlikely habitations are the detritus of a blighted land giveaway that was perpetrated from 1938 through the post-war years. The contrast of J-Tree, a veritable oasis, to the desiccated patch of scrub that is called Wonder Valley is as stark as the conditions the homesteaders confronted when they set foot on their piece of paradise. The winds howl, the sand sifts through porous walls and the scorching sun beat relentlessly on these latter-day pioneers.

In 1938 the Federal government established the Small Tract Act, an extension of 1862’s Homestead Act that opened huge swathes of the American West to homesteading or acquiring land for a nominal cost. This, it was believed, would encourage the development of a dubious expanse of "disposable" land.

In the case of the original Homestead Act of 1862 any adult citizen who had never borne arms against the U.S. government could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land in return for “improving” the land by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. The Small Tract Act had more modest goals. The government sought to dispose of land it deemed worthless, some of it in the parched Morongo Basin between Palm Springs and 29 Palms, California and eastward from 29 Palms on Highway 62. The Small Tract Act authorized the lease of up to 5 acres for full time or recreational use. If a small dwelling were built on the parcel, the land could then be purchased for $10 to $20 an acre. The house had to be under 400 square feet. There were abundant takers but after several years of living in the harsh Mojave Desert where temperatures routinely reach 115 degrees and without water or electricity, many homesteaders soon abandoned their dreams and left their tiny abodes to return to the earth. More than 2,000 of these rudimentary dwellings dot the forbidding landscape today.

We stood in the rubble beneath a half missing roof and listened to the wind whistle through cracks in the plywood and tarpaper walls. We walked silently through the three rooms of the 250 square foot shack where a family once lived and dreamed. I say family because there were clothes still hanging in the closet, there were a child’s doodles on the kitchen wall and a baby doll lay on the concrete slab in front of the entry. By the looks of the clothing in the closet and the age of the appliances we deduced the dwelling had been inhabited within the last five years. Who were these people? What compelled them to give up their dreams? And why didn’t they take their possessions with them? 

Houses like this one came to be known as Jackrabbit Homesteads, so named for the rabbits that found shade in the shadows cast by their walls. Much of the fraught development of these homesteads occurred in the post war years when Los Angelinos sought paradise in the bleak desert and recently discharged soldiers, sailors and Marines were drawn to the hope of home ownership on the cheap. Retired military personnel were given preferential treatment, and many rolled the dice. An significant number of women signed up for the program.

The 1944 issue of Desert Magazine referred these latter-day pioneers as “Folks with the blood of pioneers—or of poets—running strong in their veins, will regard the task as a grand adventure. I know of Los Angeles people who spent most of their weekends building a stone cabin on their claim.” I like the word ‘claim’ in the context of this land rush. The term recalls the Forty Niners of the mid-19th century.

Along California State Highway 62 and beyond the banal sprawl of Yucca Valley, the bleak Mojave spreads before you. The empty desert is punctuated by the shapes of small houses left to decay. Most of these curious dwellings that fleck the flat expanse of nothingness east of 29 Palms are situated in so-called Wonder Valley, hyperbole by any measure. The residue of the small-scale land rush is the hundreds of mysterious homesteads, mostly derelict but occasionally occupied.

Off late there has been a surge of interest in the homesteads. And the life the homesteads promised in the forties and fifties is attracting a new kind of seeker, many of them artists and other creatives craving tranquility and revival.

Exploring these abandoned dwellings is like visiting a cemetery. You find yourself communing with the spirits of those who once called this home. Some are completely empty and were left to the elements decades ago. Some of these pioneers left behind all their worldly possessions, furniture, appliances, even clothes on hangers in the closet. It’s otherworldly. Vestiges of lives lived populate these odd buildings: a chair, a sofa, a stuffed animal, and a baby doll. You wonder why someone would leave everything behind. The wind speaks through glassless windows, missing roofs and cracks in the walls. Visiting these sad monuments is faintly voyeuristic. There is quiet discomfort standing in the silence of dashed dreams.

It's eerie standing in the skeleton of something that was lived in; where meals were shared, and love was made. Resignation erased hope in this very spot. Then the laughter and anger that happened within these walls disappeared into the creeping sand of the unforgiving Mojave.

For a special few the desolation and emptiness spell freedom. That which is ugly to most imparts the worn beauty of loss and abandonment to others. The new seekers fill the gaping void.  

One struggles to understand the dreams, the failure, and the loss. It’s sobering yet oddly freeing. You imagine a simplified existence with aloneness as your partner. There’s a raw history that permeates Wonder Valley. These skeletal remains continue to be reclaimed by an intrepid few.

The abandoned Jackrabbit Homesteads are forbidding on some level. There’s low-level fear and a palpable creep factor. What if this wreck isn’t empty?

Not everybody appreciates the unfinished stories of the Jackrabbit Homesteads. To some the abandoned relics sully the landscape. To these residents the ramshackle hulks are a blight that needs to be erased. There’s a grassroots effort to demolish the fallow cabins. The program has already raised $500,000 through a government grant to raze the empty homesteads. Already the owners of 113 of the 145 targeted shacks have agreed to tear them down on their own. The goal is to remove all the empty cabins within 18 months. The objective according to one of the organizers of the effort is “to give the impression that the place is clean.”

And so, like all things, the photographic inspiration provided by the Jackrabbit Homesteads may have vanished by the time you read this story. The silent message is that when you see a subject worth photographing and a story worth telling, do it then. It may not be there the next time you visit. Time waits for absolutely nobody.

This is a lightly edited version of my next article in Shadow and Light magazine.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Mea Culpa

As my friend Terry Thompson emailed this morning, “Something happened on the way to the internet.” the app that publishes my blog has changed its Post Editor so that I’m unable to write and publish a post the way I have for some 735 weeks. Right now, when the email you receive appears as normal text the actual blog looks horrible. And if the actual blog appears as it should the email will have white text on a black blocks. Neither is acceptable. I will work diligently to figure it out. In the meantime, my apologies.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

City or Not Here I Come

I recently read an editorial in the New York Times that referred to the ghost town that Manhattan has become because of the pandemic. Then Thursday morning I read about downtown Los Angeles that has suffered the same fate. I had driven to Albuquerque Wednesday for a doctor’s appointment and, since I was early, I walked and photographed along Central Avenue, the main drag in the Duke City’s nominal city center. Albuquerque has a pathetic downtown. It is tepid in boom times and during the pandemic it is barren and hollow. In the half hour that I walked I saw 11 people, eight men and three women. Of the first five men that I saw only one was wearing a mask. Of the women, two wore masks and the homeless women with the borrowed shopping cart did not wear one. 

Never having had a robust city center means that Albuquerque hasn’t lost much. The real cities, New York and Los Angeles have withered during the lockdown brought about by COVID-19. Albuquerque has nothing to bounce back to. 

In the Tuesday, August 5, New York Times, Juliana Kim’s article Is New York “Over” addresses the specter of New York’s demise. She refers to a report last month by the business group, the Partnership for New York City. The group’s report estimates that as many as one-third of the city’s small businesses may never reopen. Another recent study by the city said that about 1,200 restaurants had permanently closed since March. It will be much worse than that.

On August 13 social media influencer James Altucher wrote, “NYC IS DEAD FOREVER. HERE’S WHY” In his diatribe he said, “I love NYC. When I first moved to NYC it was a dream come true. Every corner was like a theater production happening right in front of me. So much personality, so many stories. 

Every subculture I loved was in NYC. I could play chess all day and night. I could go to comedy clubs. I could start any type of business. I could meet people. I had family, friends, opportunities. No matter what happened to me, NYC was a net I could fall back on and bounce back up. 

Now it's completely dead.”

Then Monday in a Times op-ed, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld responded, “Real, live, inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together in crazy places like New York City,” he wrote. “Feeling sorry for yourself because you can’t go to the theater for a while is not the essential element of character that made New York the brilliant diamond of activity it will one day be again.”

And Michael Wilson, a New York Times reporter who has documented the mood of the city during the virus crisis wrote, “I see so many New Yorkers doubling down and riding this out. New York is over when New Yorkers collectively agree it’s over, which is why it will never happen.”

But the realities suggest that the ominous forecasting has a strong foundation. The Sunday NYT article New Yorkers Are Fleeing to the Suburbs: “The Demand Is Insane” by Matthew Haag added to my angst. The subhead was “The pandemic is spurring home sales as prosperous city residents seek more space. One listing had 97 showings and received 24 offers.”

It’s much more than space, Matthew. It’s cost. It’s schools. It’s backyards and easier living.

And the offers are often way above asking. The East Orange, NJ home with three bedrooms referenced above went under contract for 21% over the asking price of $285,000. Try to find that kind of property in Brooklyn for three times that price.

The real estate market in New York City suburbs has exploded. Sales in the suburban counties are up 44% over 2019. Westchester County which abuts the Bronx is up 112 percent and Fairfield County where we lived in the mid-70s is up 73 percent.

Meanwhile Manhattan sales fell 56 percent.

The genie is out of the bottle. Workers and companies alike have found that working from home is a viable and less expensive option for housing or office space at New York prices. Already companies are signaling that employees will continue to work remotely after the pandemic has passed. With fewer workers in the city there will be reduced demand for residential and commercial real estate, office space will remain empty and there will fewer humans on restaurant seats and barstools. That, in and of itself, is depressing to a life-long restaurant guy who operated establishments in Manhattan and Queens through much of the 1970s and 1980s. Already 1,200 NYC restaurants have closed for good. That’s the tip of the iceberg.

And that’s just New York. The same sad song is being played in Los Angeles with a downtown that has been reborn over the last ten years. After decades as workday destination and a slow drive to and from Sherman Oaks people started to live downtown. Once dark and derelict after cocktail hour, new construction of upscale condos and apartments lured 90,000 new residents to a revitalized 24/7 boom town. While that’s the population of a few square blocks in Manhattan the influx gave birth to a thriving Arts District, the Fashion District, and the Theatre District. The Historic District drew residents to its Beaux Arts heritage. From China Town to USC and from the 110 Freeway to the Los Angeles River, Downtown LA rode a hip, happening wave.

Then came the pandemic and, like New York, people contracted COVID-19, offices emptied, restaurants and bars closed, and Downtown LA finds itself in a tailspin which it may not survive.

Architect Michael Maltzan writes, “Much of the development in downtown has been happening at a furious and relentless pace with very little time to reflect on some of what has been made. Maybe it takes a moment like this to hit the pause button so that we can adjust our thinking in a more precise way.”

Historian D. J.  Waldie offers that Downtown Los Angeles had developed “a sense of place.” And that “At this point in the pandemic and the economic shock that the pandemic brought it is hard to see how that efflorescence, entrepreneurial creativity and growth will survive.” It is hard to see. And I submit that Downtown LA was only starting to achieve a sense of place. It doesn’t have a fully formed identity. It hasn’t yet, in my opinion, become truly livable. It’s hard edged, superficial, and feels temporary. Only time creates a real city. That kind of identity is many decades in the making.

What was built in the last ten years has been turned upside down in six months. The pinnacle of Downtown’s remarkable upmarket resurgence has been toppled by an insidious disease, economic collapse, and uncertainty. The only thing thriving its empty Downtown is the growing homeless population. And yet when we visit our son in suburban Los Angeles the place I want to be is Downtown. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Live Free or Die. The state slogan of New Hampshire

Poster Boy. Bandanna, Oakleys, camo and and an NRA sticker. This dude gave me the stink eye when he caught me taking his picture.
When our son arrived in Taos after driving from Los Angeles, he took tour of town and ran a couple of errands before coming to the house. He reported that he was impressed by the widespread compliance to our governor’s mask requirement. We told him that Governor Lujan-Grisham had battened down the hatches early and had gotten a handle on the pandemic from the get-go. We’re proud of her efforts and the level of cooperation New Mexicans have exhibited. Our little burg declared war on the virus early and went beyond the governor's guidelines. We, the operative word, enacted our own mask ordinance that provides for $500 fines for those who don't care about others. However, we told Garrett, not every town takes the mandate seriously. In fact, we’d taken a driving tour of the Enchanted Circle the week before. When we drove through Red River, a summer vacation destination for Texans, almost no one was wearing a mask. Not that it was a surprise. Texans, I opine, would rather give COVID-19 to the redneck on the next barstool than sacrifice personal freedom. “You can’t tell me what to do,” they seem to say.

“Stay the hell in Texas,” is my retort.

The family that stays together.

Not a care in the world

Leading by example in Red River
Then Monday Peggy, Garrett and I drove to Buena Vista, Colorado to pick up her custom picture frames. On the way back I drove us through buzzy Salida so he could see the bustling tourist town on the Arkansas River. Salida is among my favorite small towns in the Mountain West. It’s got an outdoor sports vibe and burgeoning art scene. It has classic mining town architecture. Think Aspen, Telluride and Ouray. It also sits in a so-called banana belt with a temperate climate. The thing it does not have is masks.

Garrett loves coffee and I love locally owned coffee purveyors. To me every worthy small town has at least one clever, convivial coffee seller. So, my mission was three-fold; see charming Salida, stroll along the shaded river and grab a fresh brew for the road. I found the coffee shop I’d patronized on other visits. We parked next door and walked to the tiny establishment on the corner. All of us are careful about masking and social distancing to the point of phobia. I noticed an unmasked twenty something couple concentrating on their Mac Book Pros. At that moment the woman rose from her chair and pulled her mask over her nose and mouth. A good sign it seemed to me. While we were hesitant to enter, we followed her into the place only to find that neither of the two baristas nor the cook were wearing masks. We looked at each other as if to say, “Let’s blow this joint.”

We began to walk back to the parking lot when we saw two portly couples entering the lot to retrieve their pick-up trucks with gun racks. The men were Central Casting hayseeds, wide-bodied with beards, ball caps and Oakleys. The women were just fat.

We were desperate to get out of Salida, but I did a brisk drive-through of Salida’s energetic downtown and river front. Nary a mask to be seen.

We exited Salida as if we were escaping a burning building. I hadn’t driven six blocks when I saw blinking blue lights in my rearview mirror. “Shit!” I thought. I turned the corner and parked in front of somebody’s driveway. The officer ambled to our vehicle. I rolled down the window while Peggy extracted my registration and proof of insurance from the glovebox.

When officer Holbrook came alongside, I said. “I have no idea what I did.”

He responded. “You were doing 41 in a 25-mph zone.”

I explained, “We were really was lost and just wanted to get back to Highway 50. We just picked up picture frames in Buena Vista and we’re headed back to Taos.”

"So, you're just going up and back.", he confirmed. 

He told me to continue straight ahead and I'd come US 50, to turn right and it would take me to US 285 where we could drive south to New Mexico.

He took my documents back to his cruiser, ran them through the system, and returned to the car. He gave me his business card on which he wrote 41 in a 25 zone.

“Thank you, officer. Thanks for your understanding.”

Once we had completed out transaction I said, “I have a question. We were just downtown, and we noticed almost nobody was wearing a mask. Why is that?”

A little defensive, he answered, “Well, we have a statewide mask mandate but we’re not enforcing it. If we did that’s all we would do.”

I told him. “I wasn’t being critical. I was just surprised. Thanks for your courtesy, Officer Holbrook.

What I didn’t but wanted to say was, “So you’ve calculated that the danger of someone driving 41 in a 25-mph zone is greater than 5,000 unmasked yahoos on the street, in bars and restaurants and riverfront park.”

Red River made the same calculation.

I love Salida but won’t return till the pandemic has run its course or there’s a vaccine. And I hate Red River and all that it says about half of America. Still I’m driving there right this minute to get some photographs that will illustrate its stance. After all Red River’s mayor has declared that “I disagree with the governor’s mask mandate and we won’t be enforcing it in our town.”

Let’s reflect on some American’s unwillingness to accept the facts about curbing the pandemic. It is widely held by the medical and scientific communities that if all our citizens would wear masks for three weeks, we’d have this monster under control. Yet many Americans still refuse to do the right thing. Imagine, please, that we had all united in that effort four months ago. There would be tens of thousands fewer deaths and our economy would be functioning at a semblance of normalcy right now. Schools would have safely reopened. Denial, delaying and obfuscation have led us to this place. A dearth of leadership has made America a pathetic shell of what it was. We are no longer a beacon. We’re a punchline. We’re an example all right, an example of how not to act during a crisis. Teamwork is for wimps.