In the café

This started in a very different place than it ended up.

I moved in the hot summer and there are still a some boxes at the margins of the house. A few days ago I found the one with all the film cameras. Dianas, Holgas, my first 35, a Canon, my boyfriend’s Nikon, lenses and flashes, an angled mirror spy attachment I bought when I first saw Sophie Calle’s book Please Follow Me. I was 19. In the way that we sometimes repress our influences so that we can work freely, it was only today that I noticed the resonance of my own novel’s title, Follow Me Down, with hers, my story with her book’s story, how long I have been obsessed with strangers and followings. That all has something to do with what happened.

I set out to go and work on work that needs to get done. As I was walking out the door, for the first time in years I picked up my Olympus Pen. It was a Valentine’s day gift, and it’s a very special camera. A rangefinder, which means you aren’t seeing quite what the lens sees. And it’s half-frame, so that you’re taking two photos on every frame on the roll. Anything beautiful that comes cannot be planned. Unless you are meticulous to the point of absurdity, you don’t know which shots will join together until you get the film back. Along the way I was composing a little essay about the freedom of working with constraints. I wanted to describe this in terms of the known but entirely uncontrollable constraints of the particular camera I was using.

And then I got to the café.

I sat down next to two old men deep in conversation. I set the camera on the table. One of the men asked me if it was a half-frame and not waiting for an answer started talking about the one he’d had in the 60s. “It was bigger than yours. It was a wonderful camera. Then after the war, in Japan I bought my first Nikon. They had a big fold-out poster that showed every camera they made. I bought them all.”

He pulled out the camera he uses now, a thin digital thing. “I keep a diary,” is how he explains it. He takes picture every day and writes on the back what happened. I asked what he does with them. “Oh, I keep them and when I’m dead someone will find them and I’ll be famous.”

My coffee got cold. He told me his name without asking mine. We shook hands as if the conversation was over. His friend spoke for the first time. “We should let you get to your drink.” My camera man nodded, and then kept talking. His Leicas. The war.

“What did you do in the war?” It’s dicey to ask a thing like that, especially of a man who did time in Vietnam. But it was ok after all. “I was a dentist,” he said. “I took care of teeth.”

“I got back in what, 1971? I was the East Village dentist. I hung out at the Filmore East. I knew them all. Dylan, the Velvets, the poets.” He shrugged. “It’s funny, I was conservative. But you had to dress like a hippie to get a date.”

He pulled out a 40-year old ID, his hair long and shaggy, the laminated plastic peeling up. I am not the first person who has heard this story. “I knew everybody,” he said. “I knew Ginsberg. I took care of his teeth.”

On the street

I’m out walking with the baby, she is everyone’s opening line. Rastaman walks up beside us, “Happy Mother’s Day,” he says. His voice is beautiful, the precision of his consonants against the long, round vowels. I thank him, and then, as if it were the most natural turn, he asks, “You read this book Million Shades of Blue, or Grey, whatever it is?”

“I’ve heard about it.” I’m lying. I read some of it over a shoulder on the subway. “I think it’s sort of racy, isn’t it?” I was about to say “dirty,” and thought better of it. That’s a different conversation.

“Racy, is that what it is? Okay then.” And I don’t know whether that interests him, or closes the case.

Rastaman wishes us well and lights out for the corner, we are ambling, me and the baby. Then he turns around again.

“Where would I find a book like this? Around here. If I wanted to read it.”

I point him toward the bookstore, but he doesn’t go that way.

editorial note: upcoming book party and reading

My publisher, Red Lemonade is throwing a book party for Follow Me Down–everyone’s invited! Words, special Red Lemonade fizzys, and music.

Tuesday Sept 6
7PM
The Bell House
149 7th Street, Brooklyn

I’ll also be reading at Sunny’s in Red Hook on Sept 11, at 3PM.

on the subway

I squeeze in the middle seat next to a short, round guy with doe eyes and a shaved head. He adjusts a little, but he’s still got half my seat.

“I’m sorry,” he says, in the gentlest voice. “I’m getting off at the next stop and I’m really uncomfortable and that’s why I’m still sitting like this all spread out.”

“It’s okay,” I tell him. “I’ve got enough room.” I’ve turned and looked him in the eye. I’m smiling, it’s really all right. For some reason I want him to know that.

He looks at me a minute. “You know, I don’t have a valentine, and that’s okay. At my age, I realize that love is my valentine. Just love. You can share love with your family, your aunt, your brother, your pet, your cousin, you can share it with everybody.”

“You can share my seat,” I tell him.

“See, it’s beautiful right? Happy valentine’s day,” he says, rising toward the door as the train slows its way into the station.

at the corner

I’m waiting to cross. I’ve been in motion, brisk and zeroed-in, and now I’m resentful of the involuntary halt. Like a good city person, I take the extra step into the street to wait, one pace closer to my goal, eyes intent on the traffic light.

Next to me is an old man, a real classic, in a rough tweed coat, a fake fur collar, gray scruff on his worn cheeks. “Don’t stand on that,” he says, and points to the metal sewer grate my feet are planted on. “You might disappear.”

This seems like an absurd proposition to me, but I’m conserving effort here, so I thank him, and step off to the side a bit.

“That’s better,” he’s smiling now, satisfied with his good deed. “You never know with this city, you never know. I might turn around and zoop! You’re gone.”

in a cab

On the radio, there’s some talk show banter going on. A new study says men who kiss their wives every morning live five years longer than the ones who don’t.

The driver says to me, “I’d kiss my wife every morning if she’d let me!” He’s got a sweet laugh. A small guy, bundled against the cold. He touches his chin. “In fact this morning I told her this was her last chance to kiss my smooth cheek until summer. I’m gonna grow a beard to keep warm. Never had a beard before but I gotta do something, I freeze in these cars.”

“Did she kiss you?”

“Yeah, she’s a good girl, my wife. We couldn’t be more different. She reads books all the time, I don’t touch the stuff. I never even went to high school, but somehow we get along real good.”

We’re driving along the river, the traffic is slow. I’m watching his pitted face, his shy smile. “I met her in the car. A customer. I picked her up by the hospital and we talked so much I forgot where I was supposed to be driving her! She said that was alright. We had breakfast the next couple mornings and then she moved in. Eight years.”

He’s on a roll now, and I’ve no inclination to stop him. He’s telling the kind of stories I always think the cabbies might be making up. The kind that are a little too cute. But I believe him.

“I grew up over there,” he says, pointing across the river to a row of project towers. “I started dealing drugs when I was 12. I tell you, drugs gave me a good life. I had money, I went all over the world. I went places I don’t remember going but people tell me I was there.”

“Then I had to get cleaned up. My clock ran down. So here I am. I’m doing ok. I work, people work.”

This looks bitter on the page but he’s not. He is laughing his sweet laugh. He is, I find out later, dying slowly of the things you would expect. His liver, he says, but not his heart.

in the diner

Even in the diner it’s cold. I am alone with an hour to pass and the absence of connection. Which is to say, I left my phone at home. I sit here like my grandfather, dunking a tea bag in a second pour of hot water. I’m reading a book of poems about hell, and watching the lights of the cars passing by.

In the booth behind me, a forlorn girl tells her friend, “Everyone is getting married now.”

on the subway

It’s a Fellini movie in here, jammed with people who look like out-of-work carnies grown old. That fat Russian man with the thick neck, he’s the strong man. I see the flowing orangey locks of a lion tamer, he’s reading the newspaper. There’s a stout woman with the sparkly makeup of the trapeze flyer, but she’s not swirling around the pole. A man whose nose would need little addition to play the clown leans against the door. One woman has a palsied face, her lips and eyes outlined in black, a bearded lady once, certainly. Sitting across from me is a tall dark man, his shaking hands holding a barker’s top hat in his lap. I know I’m staring at them. I am filled with wonder that might easily pass for rudeness. The train grinds into the station and the bearded lady gets up to leave. She leans down as she passes me and touches my face. “We were all beautiful once,” she says.

Follow Me Down (excerpt)

Excerpt from FOLLOW ME DOWN
By Kio Stark
(Red Lemonade, June 2011)

On Sundays the whole neighborhood sleeps late. There must have been rain at dawn, for now the streets and the trees have taken on the darker hue and shimmer that the water leaves on their surfaces as it evaporates back into the sky. All the colors are rich and saturated, the peeling bark of the sycamore, the green weeds, the mangled red tricycle that sits on the curb awaiting the trashmen’s visit. I spool a roll of film into one of my old plastic toy cameras. It’s light and imprecise. My cameras are a good excuse to see the neighborhood, to stop and stare. The camera opens a space for that, and people always ask what I’m doing. They are puzzled, generally, by the antiquated equipment and the things they see me shooting: the buildings and the places where the buildings used to be. The surface of the canal, lambent with marbled oil. The trees and weeds overtaking the things man has left in his wake.

This morning I go first to the playground. There’s a young woman there who I know a little, Carlina. She’s tall and curvy and her clothes are always sculpted to set her roundness at best advantage. Even when she’s in sweats, as she is now. She’s watching her son, who is in constant motion, circling the playground and mounting its obstacles. He’s around 6, I think. She waves. “You’re taking pictures again? What’s up with that?”

She asks me that every time she sees me with a camera. At first I tried to explain, I showed her some prints. But that’s not really what her questions are really about. It’s the meaningless but meaningful conversation of the street. She is acknowledging me as familiar, as a known quantity. I return the gesture. “You guys are out early.”

“He’s hit a new surge of testosterone or something. If I don’t take him out and run him in the morning he’s hell all day long. Swings at everybody. Gets all pent up and sinks his teeth in another kid’s arm. Jesus, men. You know?”

Take him out and run him. Like a dog or a horse. I just nod. Then I have an idea. I set the camera down on the flat edge of a bench and point it at the jungle gym, the speeding boy. I hold the shutter open for a long time, maybe a minute. The picture will be washed out with light, the physical structures barely visible. And the boy will be a blurred streak of motion, pure energy and light. I try it a few times, varying the time the shutter is open.

The boy’s mother turns away to take a phone call. She seems uncomfortable, tries to hustle the caller off the phone. “I’m not in a good place to talk. We’re outside. Hold on.”

She turns to me. “Can you watch him? I just have to deal with something.” She taps the phone. “Ten minutes. It’s one of those kind of delicate matters, you know?”

No problem, I tell her. I load another roll of film and keep shooting the boy’s flashing speed. When she comes back, he’s hanging upside-down from the monkey bars, resting. She hollers him over, in the commanding tone of mothers and generals. It works. He drops down and trots to her side. She waves at me. “Thanks,” she says and turns quickly back into the tall housing project building she lives in. I wait a while, watching, hoping for a rustle at a window that will show me which apartment is hers. But nothing happens. Eventually I move on.

I loop through the neighborhood, down by the canal and back. When I get home, my lover Jimmy is sitting on the stoop. He doesn’t like phones, he is undaunted by waiting. “I was in the neighborhood,” is what he says every time I find him like this. It’s a joke that’s always funny. He lives four blocks away.
He slides a hand around my calf as I climb the steps, and stands up to follow me into the house. I turn on the ceiling fans and a breeze picks up through the apartment, from the kitchen’s wide back windows out to the narrower ones overlooking the street.

In my living room, a mosaic of photographs covers one long wall. I add a few new ones every week or so, and I shuffle them around, reworking the schemes, seeing which rules make better compositions. Jimmy stands in front of the wall now, giving it his fullest scrutiny.

“You changed it. It’s by dominant color,” he observes, pointing at the wall. “The greens of the plants. The gray of the fences and the empty buildings. The red of the bricks and the rust.”

“I think it’s too much,” I say.

“Too much how?”

“Too obvious.” I step back and consider the wall a moment. I don’t like the workings of my mind to be so easy to guess, but that’s only part of my discomfort. “You don’t see the pictures anymore, just a field of color. It blinds the eye to detail.”

“Never any people,” Jimmy says. It’s not the first time he’s observed this, and he’s pleased with himself.
“People are only interesting to me in motion,” I tell him. “But that’s not really why. This is about a world without people at all. After people. That’s what all these are,” I tell him. I’m pacing now in front of the wall, pointing, caught up in my own convictions. “These are the ruins we leave behind. The foolish pride of our skyscrapers and our factories, left empty and grown over with weeds.”

Jimmy sits down on the couch while I’m talking, and looks up at me, a little confused, a little smitten. “They’re pictures of impermanence,” he says, working it out. “You’re taking pictures of an idea.”
I chose Jimmy because I thought he was someone else. A nice guy who plays guitar and doesn’t think too hard about things. I had him all wrong, and that complicates my hours with him in a way that makes me shrink into myself. I suppress the uneasy feeling by kneeling down and unzipping his pants.

*
One night, I get home from work in the late evening. Carlina is down on the corner in a bathing suit and shorts, her waist like the curve of a guitar. She’s fanning herself with a newspaper and talking to Julio, a short guy who watches over the corner. He’s got a big belly, an incongruous handlebar mustache. He’s always smiling but I don’t buy it at all. Now there’s music playing softly from someone’s open window. Julio and Carlina wave at me as I stand in the doorway shuffling through the mail. There’s an envelope that doesn’t belong here. It’s to “Hombre Cinco,” and it isn’t my address. I look closer. It’s dirty, the stamp is years out of date, the canceling marks are illegible now, there’s no way to know when it was mailed. It looks as though it were rescued from the dungeon of a dead letter office.

I should give it back to the postman. But I don’t.

The address on the envelope isn’t far away. A few blocks, down by the canal. Just off the industrial street where the whores walk at night. I have to wait until morning.

By the time I get out the door the next day, Julio’s already watching the corner, under cover of the burnt-out store’s fiberglass awning. “Hello mami,” he calls out. “You go to work?”

“Just a walk,” I tell him. I don’t like to linger with Julio. He starts asking questions. Who is my boyfriend and do I need any help around the house. I hurry down the street that fronts the canal.

The address I’m looking for is on a stub of a street, half a block long, cut short by the canal and a yellow diamond sign that says, simply, “END.”
There’s a sofa near the drooping fence that borders the canal. A man rises from it and staggers up to me. “Look at that face. I’m gonna marry you. I’m gonna buy you an apart- -no, a house. Gonna get a job, go back to school. Okay?”

“Okay,” I say, backing away from the sour stink of him. There’s no one else around. Even Julio is too far away to help me. The man keeps walking, muttering to himself.

He lurches away toward the empty park. When he’s out of sight, I turn back to the little street. One side is the solid wall of a warehouse, casement windows behind cast iron cages. The other side has three little townhouses with ugly siding, dirty white, hospital green, mud brown. I count the house numbers. Where a fourth would be, at the end of the street, is an empty lot. That’s the one I’m looking for.

I go down and grab the big steel lock that binds the gates with a rusty chain, rattle it a little as though it might give. It holds fast. The lot is narrow and deep. The pavement is going to seed as grass and weeds push up through the cracked blacktop. Ivy snakes through the links of the cyclone fence and into the razor wire that crowns it. There’s a great sprawling Paulownia tree shading the back, and smaller ones pushing up all around the edges, growing out of the paltry, toxic dirt. Those trees grow fast, but still, the lot must have been vacant for decades.

Maybe that’s all there is to it.

I keep the letter in my pocket and head for the post office. My fingers graze its surface, feeling the grit collected in its limbo years.

The line is long and slow. There’s a man up near the front of the impatient line, rocking a sleeping baby back and forth in a cheap stroller. He’s got the blackest hair and his skin is rosy brown. Finally it’s his turn, and there’s something a little frightened in the way he approaches the window. He’s holding out a tissuey paper, a carbon of some kind of official form. His words are soft and incomplete as he says to the clerk, “I need a photocopy. Can I do here?” She shakes her head. “No?” he asks, still a little hopeful. “I can not do that here?” The clerk waves him away.

He turns the stroller around and wheels it slowly toward the door. He’s looking at the paper in his hand. He’s navigating strange territory, things don’t work the way they work at home. He’s almost at the door when a fat woman steps out of the line, clucking her tongue at the whole situation. “Over there,” she tells him, pointing out the window. “Across the street at the Arab store. They do it.” She pats him on the arm. “Just cross the street, honey.”

I would swear he is about to cry. The moment is frozen. I’m still six or seven people from the clerk’s window. I touch the letter in my pocket. I step out of the line. I’m keeping a secret I meant to turn loose. I hurry toward the door, just in time to hold it open for the man and his stroller. Up close I see it’s not tears he’s holding back. It’s rage.

The letter stays in my bag all day at work. At night, in my kitchen, I stare at the stove. It would be so simple. But a little steam and suddenly you’re a felon. I’m not sure yet. I slide the envelope between two fingers and feel the edges of something less pliable than the worn paper. It’s a rectangle. Thicker than a folded letter. A photograph.

My phone rings, and I pin the envelope onto the fridge with a tiny magnet, adding it to the haphazard collage of scraps and postcards. It works the wrong way, I always forget. Display a thing, and it becomes invisible.

You can take a look at the cover here.

© 2010 Kio Stark

Follow Me Down cover!

Draft cover for Follow Me Down (June 2011, Red Lemonade)

The cover was designed by my good friend Ian Crowther. Here’s a video of him making it (there was fire involved).

The book is coming out in June 2011, published by Red Lemonade. I’m really excited about the press because they’re doing very innovative stuff to connect readers and writers in a web-based community. My favorite feature is that you’ll be able to comment on manuscripts and have conversations with other readers and authors–right in the margins! I’m looking forward to seeing you all there when the site launches.