Archive for the 'old men' Category

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.”


in the cafe’s backyard

In the bright sun, an old man reads the opening pages of the Brothers Karamazov, then splays the book on the table. He’s got a cupcake the size of a softball in front of him. He slices off the bottom half with great care, breaks it up, and lobs the crumbs a few feet off to his side, as if to feed some invisible animals.

At the other end of the yard, an old woman in a grand sun hat and giant sunglasses whistles birdcalls into the bushes. After a while, she looks up and catches me watching. “Did you happen to find a cell phone?” I shake my head no. “That’s too bad,” she says. “I lost mine.”

on and off the airplane

He’s bald and old, but lively, and his shirt is sort of Whitman-like, collarless and open at the neck. He sat behind me on the long delayed flight home, and we exchanged a few words through the crack between the seats. Then, when we all stand up and cram into the aisle, eager for exit, he says, “Are you in school? I saw you have a lot of electronics.”

“No, that’s all for work.”

“What sort of work do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Go on,” he prods me, as if to say, that’s never the end of the story, I’m too old to let that one lie.

I point to my bag, to the electronics. “Work is advertising. But I write fiction too.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere. Me, I write with a quill,” he announces.

“You’re a writer too?”

“No, I’m a retired dentist.”

“Oh,” I say. It’s late, and I can’t find a following question.

He shakes his head. “Not really. Don’t believe a word I say.” We walk down the steps of the plane onto the tarmac and head for the waiting bus. Suddenly his old age shows, he’s nervous, the world has become too big, baffling. “Where are they taking us?”

“Back to Lexington,” I tell him, and instantly regret it. “No, not really. To the terminal.”

“You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?”

“Not about that,” I promise him, and we get on board.

Something rings.. “Is that me?” He starts patting down his pockets and pulls out a phone. He looks at it until the ringing stops. He shakes it at me. “This?” he says. “This is like something you would have.”

on the avenue

An old man is shuffling slowly along, his wrist leashed to an equally slow dog. He’s going slow because he’s old, certainly. But also he’s reading a magazine, clutching it with two hands, the way a small child would hold a book. He’s not very tall, I can see over his shoulder. It’s porn.

in the cafe

It’s the kind of place where you order at the counter and seat yourself. The old man in front of me is wide and round and leans heavily on his cane. He has a kind, soft face, the sort that smiles even when no one is looking. His body is failing but still, the face holds traces of his younger self. They put a flat bowl of soup on the counter in front of him, a thing that can’t be managed with his weight on the cane. I offer to carry it to his table. He tells me that would be very nice, and points to one. Before he sits down, he lays aside the cane and clasps my hand between his. “Can I tell you something?” he asks. “Don’t get any older than you are right now.”

in the projects

The warm day has given over to a slight chill. It’s Saturday night. People are milling around, winding up to things that come later. There’s a butter-colored Cadillac parked out front. The door sits open and the song on the radio drifts out into the air. There’s a man sitting in the car with his feet on the curb. He’s wearing one of those old man caps, and seems old enough to have earned it. He sings past the volume of the radio, his voice fluid, with just a little gravel in it. I smile at him, and he tips his hat. “That’s right, baby,” he says and meets up with the song again on a high, trailing note.

on the street

He was a bear of a man, in a cheap suit, panama hat, a thug grown older and stouter. His hands were covered in rings, thick gold with stones like Christmas lights. Maybe he thought they spoke to his success, the dollars he had been able to part with. Or maybe he saw a bare truth: gaudy brass knuckles on a man with violent hands.

on the subway

I’ve seen them before. They are old and weathered and small. He has the permanent grin of a village idiot, even his eyes smile. She is stern, stares back at me, officiously rearranges the contents of her purse.

near the waterfront

In Greenpoint, inside a fenced lot, a weathered man in a stained jacket sat on an overturned milkcrate. His hands kept pace with his voice as he talked intently, in Polish, to a single mesermized pigeon.

on the corner

Today I wore striped tights. All the men in the projects I cut through had things to say about that.

All but this one. He was on the corner behind the drugstore with a pile of paper in his hand. He looked at his shoes. He looked at the sky. His face was ruddy and creased with time. As I got closer, he looked away and sang out softly, “Boycott Walgreen’s.” I stopped and asked what was going on. He handed me a sheet of paper. He whispered, always looking away, “They’re not fair.”