Midtown Manhattan

Midtown Manhattan

I have a fondness for old 70’s-80’s movies set in New York City. Escape From New York, The Warriors, Nighthawks, were all a staple of my childhood. Growing up around the NJ/NY metropolitan area from 1980-1989, I remember how New York City was considered a no-man’s land back then. Taking a trip to the city was the equivalent of wandering into Mordor. The sleaze, the shady characters, the noise, the smells, all of it terrifying yet wonderful. All serving as a banquet to feed my imagination.

Today’s New York is a sad shadow of it’s former wonder. A sterile, manufactured, mass-produced, prepackaged offering for tourists and families seeking big city thrills within their comfort zone. An urban Disneyland. Oh look it’s the Naked Cowboy, better cover little Sally’s eyes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that I can feel somewhat safer in the city, especially when carrying around camera equipment. But Giuliani’s crackdown not only put the hookers, dealers, and sex shops out of business, it also hurt the small record shops, bookstores, weirdo bars, and other elements which made New York a surreal wonderland. I still remember the day Coney Island High closed down for good, part of the Mayor’s sweep to close down bars for fire department violations. Who was playing that day? Lagwagon? I don’t remember, since I was going to a grindcore fest at CBGB’s a few blocks away. But it still bummed me out. If you want to find the former site of your old punk bar or indie record store or obscure bookstore, just go to the nearest Starbucks.

That is why I usually avoid Midtown Manhattan, unless I’m on the way home through Port Authority. But on this day I wanted to experiment with slow shutter speeds, and the area does serve as a good training ground for the technique. I’ll admit I didn’t know what the Hell I was doing, my knowledge limited to a few pages I quickly read in a photo guide book.

I shot this one during the summer of 2004, using my trusty ol’ Canon Elan 7 film camera. Although I don’t recall the day or month, I do remember carrying a cheap tripod all around Manhattan and leaving it sprawled upside-down in a trash can after the base mechanism broke. I don’t need no steenkin’ tripod!

Turns out I did need a steenkin’ tripod, since all the photos I took during that day came out as blurry messes that resembled Jackson Pollock paintings. Ironically, when I shot this one, I braced the camera against a vibrating street light pole for about 30 seconds. I guess it’s a lucky shot under the circumstances. Oh well, I think it would make a good postcard for tourists who braved the G-rated streets of New York City.

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Occupy the Moment

Occupy the Moment

The first time I visited the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park, I was coming back from helping my friend move his air conditioner from his old Harlem apartment into his new place a few blocks away. We tied the unit to my skateboard and pulled it along like a doggy on a leash. People on the street got a kick out of it, as I called out “Here Fido, Fido! Good boy, Fido!” My left hand was bloodied and wrapped in a bandanna after I cut it while removing the air conditioner. As we walked, I asked him “Hey, have you heard about those people camping out in Wall Street? Wanna check it out after we’re done?” He didn’t think much as he responded “Eh, sure, we’ll check it out and have a few beers afterwards.” So that was that, and we didn’t think much of it as we took the downtown train later on that day.

There were less than a hundred people at Zuccotti Park. We walked around and chatted with a few occupiers, before heading out to St. Marks for a few beers. As we sat and drank our ales, I asked him if he’d like to come down with me next week to take some photos of the occupiers at Zuccotti. “Eh sure, we’ll have some beers afterwards.” he replied, and we didn’t think much of it as we sat there staring out the window as we sipped our beers.

A week later we were back at Zuccotti Park after coming back from the Slut Walk march that we heard about during the week and decided to check out before going down to Occupy Wall Street (I’ll talk more about that in a future entry). The park was nearly empty and we asked a friendly girl if she knew where everyone was. She said everyone was heading to march across the Brooklyn Bridge and she was walking there herself, so we tagged along.

A few minutes later, we were right smack in the middle of the bridge, in the midst of a sea of people, all marching, chanting, and getting arrested on the car lanes below. NYPD had us all penned in like a herd of cattle and they began bringing in police trucks and buses to carry off those arrested. The sea of people swelled and roared like an ocean during a storm, as I wondered how the Hell I was going to get out of this one. After realizing that I was stuck in there for a while (having lost my friend a few hundred people back and he shook his head like a terrified child being forced to sit on a scary mall Santa’s lap), I began to chant and even started some of my own chants. I belted out “Hell no! We won’t go!” and it caught on like wildfire, first a handful then a few dozen, then the whole crowd. At that moment I felt like there was no place on Earth I would rather be. My old punk rock miscreant self was brought back to life with the energy and electricity that ran through the human tidal wave that flooded the Brooklyn Bridge.

A few hours later, I was reunited with my friend and we decided to go to St. Marks for some beers. As we sat at the bar drinking our ales, I asked my friend “So, wanna go again next week?”. He sipped his beer and said “Sure, I’ll go with you. We can have some beers afterwards.”, and we sat there staring out the window and not thinking much of it for the rest of the evening.

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Fire Escape

Fire Escape

I was never good at Math, and much less Geometry. In high school they had to pull me out of Geometry class and put me in Baking/Home Economics in order to save me from failing the grade. Oddly enough, I could easily recognize patterns, symmetry, and angles. The real problem was when we had to apply formulas and numbers to the whole thing. My brain would come to a screeching halt and I would sit there with a confused look on my face as if I were staring at some hieroglyphs from some obscure civilization.

My Geometry teacher would poke fun at me, telling me to never become a carpenter because my house would end up with a mismatched roof and sloping, uneven walls. Yet, during his tests, when the paper would still be blank after half an hour, I would find myself staring at the beams in the classroom ceiling, admiring the shapes and intersections they created.

If he were still teaching, I would like to drop by his classroom one day and place this photo on his desk and ask if he could give me extra credit for it, even though I graduated 17 years ago. Chances are he’ll just wave me away and tell me to go bake a cake or something.

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New York City Ghosts

New York City Ghosts

I’m somewhat convinced that New York City serves as a portal to another dimension, where people shift in and out between their plane of existence into ours. I came up with that theory one night as I shot some photos around downtown Manhattan. I’m somewhat cautious when pulling out my camera anywhere, especially in the city. Before I take out my Canon I scan the street in front and behind me for anyone who may look like they want to run off with my equipment or who may try to give me a hard time for taking a photo (NYPD and security guards come to mind).

Somewhere around 12 a.m. midnight I stopped around 12th St. and 2nd Ave. After scanning the area, I quickly pulled out my camera and as soon as I began to adjust my settings I felt a light tap on my elbow. I looked down and there was a small Asian man in a wheelchair, smiling up at me and pointing to my camera. How did I miss seeing him a second or two ago? He would have taken a while to get to where I was in his wheelchair, and yet there he was, next to me in the blink of an eye. Through his broken English he asked me if I was a photographer and was curious about the shot I wanted to take. Somehow this man didn’t seem strange or creepy, I felt a warm familiarity and comfort, as if I’ve known him for years. I took my shots and let him view the photos through the camera’s back screen. His smile was truly genuine, a rarity in this city.

He shook my hand and his grip was gentle but firm, told me his name (which I can’t remember now, I wish I did), and said he was from Cambodia. After taking out a cigarette, he invited me to sit and talk about photography. I took the opportunity to fill up my tobacco pipe and listen to this odd yet wonderful man’s story. Although his English was somewhat limited, he told me he used to be a photographer in his native Cambodia, before Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over the country, where he fled to Thailand and worked as a street vendor. I asked him if he ever wanted to get back into photography. He told me that when he left Cambodia he left his camera, as well as the lower portion of his left leg.

We talked for nearly an hour, sitting there on the middle of the block at 12th St. and 2nd Ave, before I got up and said my goodbyes before heading back to the New Jersey Path train. We shook hands one more time and I walked up the block and crossed the street, only to look back and see a nearly empty block with one or two people passing by, but no sign of my new friend. Deciding to not question the encounter and just take it as something that maybe I wasn’t meant to understand, I shrugged it off and walked back to 14th St. and 6th Ave, stopping only to take this photo on the way there.

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Welcome to The Drainbow Diaries!

Hello, my name is Al. This is a photo blog showcasing my work and words to go along with each image. I do mostly street and journalistic photography and every now and then dabble in some experimental work.

Some things about me:

I was born and partially raised in Puerto Rico. Now I live in Northern New Jersey, 15 minutes away from Manhattan.

I’m an ex-New York City teacher, now working as an Environmental Health Worker in East Harlem.

Some of my interests and hobbies include: beer label collecting, homebrewing, cycling, videogames, indie/foreign films, music, tattoos, and collecting books that I may never get around to reading because my reading list is ridiculously long at the moment.

The camera I used for many of my photos is a Canon 50D. The double exposure shots I will showcase every now and then were shot using a Canon Elan 7 film camera.

Anyways, I hope you enjoy reading my blog and please feel free to comment/critique/suggest/etc.

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