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
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.”