The Stranger’s Story

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So yesterday I headed back into Manhattan to pick up an Amazon order that I had shipped to a Rite-Aid locker on 24th St. After taking a detour through Union Square to check out the farmer’s market (picking up some homemade craft beers and sampling some cheeses), I walked up to 21st and turned towards 8th Ave. While walking west on the block, I found an old torn seat on the sidewalk, waiting for the garbage truck to haul it away, like a man waiting for the Grim Reaper on his deathbed. Having brought my camera along and figuring I had enough time to kill, I took a few shots from different angles. People passed east and west, one guy who kind of looked like Woody Allen stared at me before walking off. I took more photos, but non of the shots really stood out or did anything for me.

I linger around the area a bit longer, returning calls and texting friends, and decide to take a few final shots before heading out. As I’m kneeling and shooting the chair, the passerby who looked like Woody Allen comes back up, stops, and asks me “Excuse me, if you don’t mind me asking, what is with that chair? Whats so special about it?” I told him that I just stumbled upon it and took some photos but had no luck getting a good shot. “Oh, I thought you were trying to sell that chair and were taking photos to post it on Craigslist or something.”, he said. We began talking about old antiques and vintage items, when he looks around, and in a low voice says “Well, I have a story for you. You don’t mind if I sit on the chair, do you?” And thus began the stranger’s story:

“Ever since I could remember, we had an old painting of my grandmother in the basement in our townhouse. We didn’t think too much of it, didn’t bother to put it up in the living room, even knocked it down once by accident while playing around down there. The years go by, I married and we settled down in the old house. Kept it pretty much the same way as it was back then.

One night, my wife and I were having friends over for dinner. My wife’s circle of friends included artists, as well as museum collectors. We take them down to the basement to show them some old records we had, when my friend’s wife sees the painting of my grandmother, puts on her glasses, and asks “Is that a Picasso?” She calls her husband over from the box of records he was browsing through and he comes up and also states that it looks like a Picasso. They examine the painting and insist that I have it checked out by an expert. I’m standing there thinking “That old thing? A Picasso? Pffffff!”

A few months later, I have another friend over for a few drinks. He sees the painting and not only does he say that it seems to be a Picasso, but he’s also seen the painting, or something like it, in a book. So now I’m curious. What the hell is a Picasso doing in my basement?

Intrigued, I go to the public library a few days later and borrow a book on Picasso’s paintings. The book was massive, I never knew Picasso had so many works. He was most known for his abstracts, but he also did portraits, still life, landscapes  you name it. So I’m flipping through this book and towards the end I find a different version of my painting! The same woman, sitting on the same couch, same background, but different pose. The painting I had in the basement showed my grandmother leaning forward, with her chin resting on her arm. The painting in the book showed her laying back on the couch. But there was no mistake it was her. My grandmother was born and raised in Russia, and the painting was described as the “Daughter of the Russian General”.

I’m sitting there thinking to myself “Ok, this is just spooky now.” I then realized that maybe my painting was some sort of version or draft that Picasso painted, and wasn’t happy with, so he made another one, which he sold or displayed. I decided to go to Sotheby’s to see if they could get someone down here to verify it. The next day I go to Sotheby’s and tell the representative “Hey, I think I have a Picasso in my basement.” He took one look at me and thought I was nuts, so he showed little interest, took my number, and bid me farewell. So that’s that, I thought.

Months go by, I don’t hear from Sotheby’s, so I kind of lost my interest in the whole thing. One day I’m cleaning the basement and there’s a large old dusty couch in the corner. I sweep underneath and the broom hits something heavy. I move the couch and find some large square object wrapped in fabric. Curious, I unwrap it and it’s a stack of paintings piled one on top of the other. There was a note on top, some sort of old handwritten receipt that had “Mrs. Astor” as the purchaser. I look through the paintings and I was shocked to find more Picasso’s! There were ten of them wrapped in that old blanket, under there for who knows how long. What are these things doing here? Who’s “Mrs. Astor”? Why is my grandmother in a Picasso painting? Now this is getting scary. Did she know Picasso? Were they stolen? Or counterfeit? Or were they genuine and worth a fortune? I didn’t know what to do! Part of me wanted to contact a museum immediately, but at the same time I didn’t want to reveal some skeleton in the closet. My grandmother was still alive and I didn’t want to get her in trouble for whatever was going on, especially in her delicate state. So I just kept it secret.

Two years later, my grandmother can’t live alone anymore, so my wife and I decide to bring her back into the house and take care of her. My grandmother kept a small garden and would spend her days tending her plants and flowers. One day my wife says to me “I think Grandma is really losing it. You know that big, heavy spoon she has in that bucket of weed killer? You know why it’s so heavy, right? It’s pure silver! That thing is worth a fortune! Why is she using it to kill weeds in her garden?!?” We call Grandma over, and kindly ask her where she got the spoon from, and she leads us to an old box in the basement, and once we open it, we nearly fell backwards. It was full of silver and gold ornaments, dinnerware, candle-holders, you name it! All antique, all worth more than you could imagine! This things belonged in a museum, not my basement! We asked Grandma where she got this stuff from, and she told us “Oh, it was given to me by a friend years ago.”, and didn’t say anymore.”

After he finished his story, I asked him what he planned to do with all that stuff. He said he never had children, he was widowed, and was afraid of what would happen to all that stuff once he passed away. Looking at me, he sighs and says “If all that stuff was stolen or counterfeit, I’ll just be asking for trouble if I contact a museum. If they indeed belonged to my family, I wouldn’t know what to do with the money, and I don’t want to bring any attention or be on the news, or whatnot. I’m happy the way I am, I don’t need to change anything in my life. All that stuff is now part of my world, I guess I grew attached to it.”

We walked up to 8th Ave., before shaking hands, thanking him for such a great story, and headed on my way. I didn’t get a good photo that day, but I did get a great story. This guy did not set off any triggers in my internal bullshit detector, built upon and fine-tuned by students, parents, and principles over the 8 years I spent working as a high and elementary school teacher. The way he told it was so natural, so fluid, never stumbling over details, never contradicting himself. Maybe it was true? Or maybe he was crazy? Or maybe he was simply a skilled liar. Nevertheless, it was a great story and I enjoyed hearing every second of it. I looked at all the buildings around me, wondered what kind of treasures they could be hiding in their dusty basements, shook my head, and went on my way.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the chair I was taking pictures of, this is it. It’s a lame photo, but whatever.

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Time Stops For No One

You’re walking home from work. You decide to stop for a few seconds to pull out your phone to check your Facebook. Or maybe you didn’t decide to stop. Maybe you are somehow programmed to stop and check your Facebook whenever your pace slows down. Nevertheless, you come to a complete stop. As you stare at the tiny screen, dozens, hundreds of strangers pass you by. Further away, a cab speeds by. A few feet away from the cab, a truck pulls into a one-way street. Half a block away from the truck, a homeless man begs for change and is ignored by the passerby’s. Across the river, a junkie is hustling for his next fix. A few blocks down, a woman nurses her newborn child. A mile down, a man is living his last few hours on Earth, since he will be shot dead before the sun goes down. Across the ocean, a hungry child sits on the side of a dusty dirt road as local villagers pass her by. Further away, an overcrowded bus speeds by. A few feet away from the bus a truck full of black market weapons pulls into a dirt road. A bit farther down a homeless man sleeps in his makeshift bed made of scrap fabrics. Across the river, a drug baron is hustling local officials to move his merchandise into Europe. A few houses down, a woman gives birth to a stillborn child. A mile down, a man is living his last few hours on Earth, since he will be shot dead before the sun comes up. Across the ocean, you tuck your cellphone back into your pocket, since nothing really went on since the last time you checked your Facebook.

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The Zone

One of my favorite novels of all time is Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Written in Soviet Russia, it’s the tale of a place called The Zone, which was the site of an alien visitation. After the aliens inexplicably left, The Zone became the place of strange anomalies: the laws of physics were altered, residents in areas surrounding the Zone would give birth to dead relatives, and the place itself never showed any signs of decay, seemingly frozen as it was, even though some decades passed since the visitation. A group of scavengers called “Stalkers” would venture illegally into the Zone to gather artifacts to sell to scientists, setting up a black market of sorts. The main character, Redrick Schuhart, was one such Stalker. A man with no real sense of belonging, he felt a strange attraction to the Zone, and did not care if the Zone would one day claim him. The novel is a fascinating, tragic read. It also inspired the movie “Stalker”, and the videogame “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl”. I highly recommend checking them out. But anyways….

Back in Puerto Rico there was an old, abandoned refinery in the southern coast of the island that you could see from the highway. A decayed monument of industry, it’s chimneys standing like rusted, ironclad golems, watching over the land for intruders. Many times I drove past with friends and they would comment how creeped out they were by the place. I admit I did not share the same feeling. The place had a certain sad loneliness to it. Forgotten, decaying, biding it’s time as the salty air and the desert winds battered it mercilessly over the decades.

One day I decided to check the place out. I packed my film camera, flashlight, cigarettes, some pot, and my hoodie. After an hour and a half drive, I took the exit that led me to this monolith. I parked my car in front of an old wooden shack that served as a bar to the few locals that lived in that dry, dusty area. There were a few shirtless, barefoot children playing and riding old, rusty bikes on wheels that were missing tires. I went into the bar, bought a beer, sat outside, lit a cigarette, and studied the area around the refinery. There was a rusted fence surrounding the perimeter, topped with barbed wire. Climbing it would be out of the question, unless I wanted to catch some gangrene should I cut myself attempting it. I had to find another way in.

I finished my beer and walked down the road to the area. After wandering around the fence for some time, I found a dark drainage pipe that led into the complex. Pulling my hood over my head, I mustered the courage to go in. The pipe was dry and dusty, water did not travel through it for some time. Crawling through the darkness, I managed to find my way to the other side, a dry, open canal in the refinery grounds. I was in, and already the refinery was greeting me. Chains clinked in the distance as the wind blew on them, the hollow pipes howled, metal clanged as it swayed. The place came to life as I walked inside.

Walking through the inner passages of this great, metal monstrosity, I noticed empty food tins, suggesting that the place was indeed populated from time to time. Oddly, no graffiti was found, but names were crudely scrawled on the walls in charcoal. Radiation signs adorned some of the areas. The lab doors were open and various instruments lay on it’s floors. I stopped and collected some test tubes and beakers. As I climbed the loose ladders, I realized that if I were to fall, not only would it be fatal, but my body would not be found for days, weeks, even months. There was no room for error.

I took some photos and made it all the way to the top, sitting on a railing overlooking the highway and mountains. Smoking my joint, I looked down on the cars passing in the distance, wondering if they could see me. A police car passed by and I gave it the finger, even though I was probably a tiny speck in the distance in a place no one bothered to even look at. As the sun began to set, I decided to make my way down before it got dark. Crawling through the drainage pipe once again, I was back in my car just as the cars in the distance turned on their headlights.

It was not the last time I visited the refinery. I made more trips during the next few months. The last time I went, the drainage pipe was blocked by a crude web of barbed wire. Someone was trying to keep intruders out, or they probably spotted me visiting the place. Luckily I found a hole in the fence that I managed to crawl through to continue my adventure. The sounds of this place no longer made me afraid, it was a sad, lonely melody, played for the few souls who dared to venture in and keep it company. Like Redrick Schuhart in Roadside Picnic, I had found my “Zone”.

It’s been nearly ten years since I last visited. Last I heard they were using the place as a makeshift storage facility of sorts and personnel were now stationed there. I felt a pang of sadness, yet I knew that even if it was still abandoned, I would probably not go back in. Even though I had discovered it’s secrets, I was once again a stranger to the place. But I would always remember the moments I spent all alone up in the walkways, the Zone singing it’s song to me.

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Bleecker Street

Bleecker Street

Lately, I’ve been trying to get over the habit of taking photos of buildings, structures, or still life in general. I admit I’m a bit people shy when it comes to street photography. The other day I was in Washington Square Park and saw a photographer almost get punched out when he tried to snap a photo of two middle aged men playing chess. That’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid, aside from the creep factor I may give off to a total stranger upon taking their pic. Protests and Occupy Wall Street are different. People actually want to be seen and heard. But anyways….

A few weeks ago I decided to try to stray away a bit from my comfort zone and focus on photographing people. Not going up in their face but from a non-intrusive, indirect point of view. This was shot right before taking the train home after wandering around the East Village for almost two hours without taking a single shot. Everyone seemed like copy/paste clones of each other, no individuality whatsoever. Polo shirt, khakis, bag, skirt, bag, iPhone, walking fast can’t stop gotta run call you when I get out of the train don’t forget to feed the cat.

This man didn’t have to rush anywhere. As everyone else strode forward, he pushed back. Breaking through the line of commuter ants as he went along, pushing himself on his one good leg. The only fresh and genuine face around the whole area.

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Old Polaroids

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The other day I was going over my box of old photos from my film days and dug these two out. They’re from my old hometown, when one weekend I decided to drive to the nearest Walmart half an hour away to pick up a Polaroid. I was in the mood for some experimentation, as well as the instant gratification one could only get in the pre-digital age (yes, I know I’m old, so shh!).

That Saturday was spent wandering around town, carefully thinking and rethinking my shots. I forgot how many photos you could get out of one roll or cartridge or whatever you called it, but I only had one, so each shot was precious ammo I didn’t want to waste.

Out of all the ones I shot that day, these two stood out, at least for me. I took a bit of a gamble on the flock of pigeons and decided to pan the shot to get sharpness in contrast with motion blur and luckily for me it turned out well (good thing too, the pigeons never came back). The stray dog just broke my heart, it’s pained, tired, almost ancient eyes staring back.

I wish I could find some Polaroid film and shoot again. Well, I could probably find some in NYC, might have to research a bit if some third party is still making it. The downside of digital is that every shot seems expendable, it kind of cheapens the experience. Shooting Polaroids was very enjoyable, and I would love to cover my fridge and office desk with little square photos in white borders.

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Windows

Windows

There is an alley in downtown Manhattan next to the Puck Building where many fashion shoots take place. Everytime I pass by there, models are posing for the cameras, wearing the latest styles and getting their hair and makeup done on the spot. I sometimes stop to watch for a while. Fashion photography is not my thing, but I do enjoy seeing what kind of setup they have and what kind of moods they try to convey. It’s kind of a learning experience. I also find the wardrobe and styles amusing, some look like they stepped out from the set of a sci-fi movie or a time warp leading back to the 1930′s.

When I shot this one, there was a fashion shoot in progress. After observing for a while, I noticed the windows high above and found the scene much more interesting than the actual shoot. I took out my camera, walked up while they were taking a break, and as I approached one of the crew comes up to me and tells me that I can’t take photos of the models. I told him I wasn’t interested in the models, pointed up to the windows, snapped this photo, and left. As I passed, one of the models says “Hey, I like your vest.”, referring to my black hesher punk/metal denim biker vest. Here she is wearing clothes that cost more than what I make in a month, and yet she’s complimenting my old, worn, patched-and-pinned vest. Somehow I found it amusing and ironic.

I guess the photo symbolizes different phases, or windows, in my life that have opened and closed. One closed window represents my teaching career, an open one my new career. Another closed one my old town, an open one the city and it’s infinite possibilities. Or maybe I just like the pattern, I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t feel like such a dirtbag anymore every time I wear my beloved vest.

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Misty Mountains

Misty Mountains

Although I consider myself pretty much New Jersey/New Yorker, my real roots lay in an idyllic town in Puerto Rico called Aibonito. Located in the center of the island and surrounded by mountains, winding roads, and blankets of fog and mist, the sleepy little town is my birthplace. My parents moved from Aibonito to New Jersey in the late 70′s, where I grew up. We returned in 1989, and spent my junior high school years all the way through college on the island.

The town holds so many memories for me, as well as a bunch of firsts. First girlfriend, first best friend, first beer, first time I drove a car, first tattoo, I can go on and on. After graduating from college and teaching in the town for a few years, I decided to go back to NJ and work in NYC. My friends threw me a punk show farewell party, and the next day I packed my bags and hopped on a plane with a one-way ticket in hand.

I felt like Bilbo Baggins leaving The Shire. Leaving behind a tranquil, carefree existence. If I told I wasn’t scared I’d be lying to you. Honestly, I didn’t know if I would make it through a year away from the sheltered, protective embrace of my small town. Sure, I knew the NY/NJ area from my childhood, but it was different. Aibonito saw me return as a child and saw me leave a man. A sack full of dreams over my shoulder, a weeping mother and sister left behind at home. I wasn’t scared, I was terrified. Small town mountain boy making a living in NYC. If I didn’t make it here, this city wouldn’t simply let me go, it would destroy me.

Six years later and I have changed quite alot. I fought many battles and proudly wear the trophies on my arms. The beast of a city has not been tamed, but it respects me and even shows some affection towards me. It knows I’m a survivor and we regard each other with mutual respect. I’m not claiming victory yet, and probably never will, but I will say that it never succeeded in destroying me, and I can live with that.

I try to go back to my hometown every year to see my friends and family. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss them. Everytime I go back, they ask me a million questions about life in the big city. I enjoy sitting down and telling them my latest adventures and listening to the latest small town gossip. But at the same time there is a kind of disconnect within me. As much as I miss my mountain town, I can never go back to it. I feel like I changed to much and not only would I have trouble coping, but people would have a hard time understanding me. Kind of like a viking warrior who left his sleepy village and returned after many battles only to feel out of place, uncomfortable with the peace and quiet, not knowing what to do or how to relate. The people in my town now look at me in a strange way, staring at my tattoos and clothes. I feel like I lost something, yet I don’t know what.

Back when I taught in Aibonito, I passed by these mountains every day on my way to school. I never really thought of taking a photo of them, since I had gotten so used to the sight. On the last day of my last visit to Aibonito, I decided I wanted to take a photo of the mist over the mountains. I packed my bags and told my mom I would be right back. Driving out a bit, I stopped and snapped a few photos. Then I came back, put my bag in the car, and said goodbye to my mom. I haven’t been back since.

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