Blowing in the Wind

I always feel guilty walking past the bell ringers outside the supermarket. My father is a generous guy though, and every Christmas he donates a substantial sum to the Salvation Army. I have no reason for the guilt, largely because I have no money.

But I had a dollar in my pocket when I walked past. I was thinking about my father, remembering the way he fondly talked about voting for FDR: “He didn’t live long after that, but I was glad I got the chance— he did a lot for the poor people in this country.” It was a strange little tangent for my mind to take, and as I looked across the parking lot I thought for a moment that I might leave the cart in the parking space. But then I thought, “what would dad do?” He’d put it in the right place, of course. So I braved the whizzing traffic and pushed it across.

On the trip back, a car stopped and started honking at me. I looked back, and the man behind the wheel was about the same age as my father. He was pointing frantically at the pavement. I looked down, and saw the dollar bill blowing in the wind. I felt rather silly chasing it; I felt like the baby on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind.

The next car in line stopped and asked: “Was that money blowing across the road?”

Yes, I said.

I really should have given it to the guy with the bell. It would have saved the traffic disruption. But I’ve had less sympathy for those guys around here. I found out last year that because so few people volunteer to be bell-ringers these days, most of them around here are paid to stand there and make shoppers feel guilty. The incident also reminded me about the difference between Arkansas and California. In California, I wouldn’t have had to chase the bit of green paper because no one probably would have mentioned it. They would have waited until I left and picked it up.

Alphabet Stories #2

Alphabet Stories #2

D was in love with K — K was in love with S. I’m not sure why it turned out the way it did, but it did. It did me in.

D was my best friend. We rode many miles together on rickety bikes through the dusty valley. I met him in junior high school. He was one of those guys who wore trench coats before they were popular, with dark horn-rimmed glasses and flaming red hair. Kids at the school called him “Seymour”— a derogatory reference to a late night horror movie host on a cable channel from LA. I liked him instantly. He was an anglophile like me, and we’d spend hours playing chess and debating British TV shows. When I moved away from the white-trash slum I lived in to a distant farm, we’d ride and meet each other half-way on the long straight road in between the stockyard and the sewer farm.

D liked being mobile. After the bicycle, he got a Honda Trail 90. I’d jump on the back, and we’d climb the mountains. But D was crazy. He wouldn’t listen to reason. I once jumped off the back at thirty miles and hour when he steered towards a patch of ice on the road, just because he wanted to feel the bike squirm. I tucked and rolled with my camera, and looked up just in time to see him instantly fall over on the ice, his leg mangled in the wheel. I was fine. D soon moved up to a 350, and then a car. D’s car was an AMC Javelin, purchased during my senior year in high school. D didn’t go to a normal high school. It was a place for borderline kids, who for one reason or another couldn’t cope with regular school— sort of a hippie school. D, K, and S all went to the same school. D wasn’t a hippie. Neither was K. But S was, at least sort-of. Long-haired, quiet, and anti-social, the antithesis of the gregarious D. When K and S split up, D saw his chance. He wanted to impress her. So pulled up at my little spot of wilderness with K in his Javelin, to show her how “cultured” he was, with crazy artistic friends. I’d grown used to the role of esoteric other; the photographic freak in the middle of nowhere.

I suppose I was somewhere in the middle, personality-wise, between D and S. I didn’t like to press. I didn’t really have to. K did all the pressing. She pushed all the right buttons in me, and I became head-over heels in love with her. She was freckled and beautiful, and loved to play cards. I should have gotten the clue. Her game was solitaire.

We’d sit up all night long playing cards, and eventually D gave up. He told me he wouldn’t get in our way. But there were already many things in our way. K swore that S had tried to rape her; that’s why they broke up. K said she had been raped when she was fourteen, and had many sexual problems. It was my first lesson in patience. But it was also a lesson in believing someone for all the wrong reasons. I shouldn’t have believed what she said about S. I didn’t know him too well, but it seemed totally out of character. But I was so taken with her face, with the curve of her, with the warm feeling as I rested my head in her lap. It didn’t seem to matter to me that she wouldn’t touch me. Maybe someday, I thought.

Oddly enough, she wanted me to photograph her nude. I was working on my first show in college; photographing the twisted remains of burned metal at an oil tank farm struck by lightning. We went there often, and I did some fine work of her body parts, particularly that delicious neck viewed through the flanges and portals. The rusted speckled metal, and her speckled skin were so evocative, so classic. She made me promise I wouldn’t show them. I had no problem with that. When we split up, it hit me hard. It was the first time I’d heard “it’s for your own good— I’m too messed up.”

As if I were a prize— or as if she were benevolent. I didn’t want to let go, and I spent a lot of time wasted and thinking of her. K seemed to enjoy the torture. I remember standing in a phone booth in the rain, in the middle of a main street, barely maintaining under a massive dose of LSD. D had come by, as I was medicating myself at my brothers house (who had no phone), to tell me that K desperately wanted to talk to me. I called her at the hotel in LA. K wanted to tell me that she would be sleeping with two men tonight, to prove that she would be bad for me and that I should just get over it. She was going to marry S, after this, because he deserved her miserable self more than I did.

Looking back, I can see all the lies. But it hurt so much then. I wrestle with my conscience over one bad decision. K insisted that I give her all the negatives I shot of her. She cut them up before my eyes. I decided afterward that I’d never allow that again— I felt raped. If I made a photograph, it was part of me and I would never surrender pieces of me again. By this time, photographs were my life. I miss the photographs far more than I miss K. D, K, and S all joined the Air Force. K and S married, but were soon divorced. The next summer, I moved my way down the alphabet to an L. She was an improvement in every way.

Alphabet Stories #1

Alphabet Stories #1

D— tried to sell me on the Beatles. But I liked the Monkees better. It was a long ride to her house. Past the three-story home with the 29 Lincoln convertible in the driveway, past the small church at the end of the street where I watched fascinating time-lapse films on long summer nights, I’d cross the vacant dirt lot and climb down a deep trench lined with broken bottles placed to stop cars from cutting across and lift my bike over the short barbed wire fence. Then I could ride, and lean into the broad sweeping curves of the upscale tract homes, past K’s house, across Calloway canal to the strip of ranch houses where she lived.

D— knew I loved K. She was a consummate matchmaker, and thought we would be a good couple. I’d sit in her bedroom and listen to Beatles records. My obsession with K started when she passed me a note during a seventh-grade field trip. In the dark art-deco Fox theater downtown, while we were supposed to be watching The Sound of Music, K passed me a note.

I like you. Do you like me? Check this box. . .

I checked the box, and much to my surprise, later she acted like the entire episode never happened. I was okay in the dark, but in the light of the playground she wouldn’t have anything to do with me anymore. I was perplexed, and D— tried to console me. I usually changed the subject to music.

“No, no . . . Mike Nesmith is much cooler than Paul McCartney. John Lennon is the smart one!”

“But Paul is so dreamy and I like Davy better!” she rebutted.

I was far more interested in crazy than dreamy. I plotted crazy ways to get K to like me again. I didn’t know how to be dreamy, but I thought I might be able to master crazy. When I moved away midway through that seventh-grade year, I was still plotting. Sometimes I’d ride my bike back to D— ’s house. It was a thirty-mile ride this time around. Through agricultural back-roads and busy city streets, from one end of the city to the other. I remember that sometime in my eight grade year, D— gave me a photo of K.

Spindly legs and a Chihuahua on the front lawn— I suspect the image is still around here, buried in a box somewhere— but it doesn’t really matter. I can still see it my head. I think something happened as a result of this— perhaps I started to connect images with strong feelings then, but I’m not sure. It was years before I became a photographer. I know that now whenever I check a box, or make a journey, I think about it first. But thinking hasn’t usually lead to better decisions, only different ones. Perhaps it was when I started measuring myself by what girls thought of me, but I’m not sure about that either.

It was also years before the next girl whose name began with K forever changed the way I thought about images. I don’t think I really knew the meaning of heartache then, but it didn’t take much longer before I learned. K has never been my favorite letter of the alphabet. It’s horribly reductive, I know. But it forms a convenient way to frame a tale. D’s have also been somewhat troublesome; so have L’s. M’s have universally been good though. Sometimes I think I need to broaden my alphabetic influences.