Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The End

This blog had begun as a way to describe my walk across the US. When that walk ended, I kept updating some of my writing here, but I became lax.

Not because I had stopped writing, but because the intent had changed. I wasn't walking long distances anymore. It felt false to have a blog called 'I Walk This Earth' when I wasn't going anywhere.

This blog formed part of a project which came to a very distinct end three years ago. It's time to move on to something new.

And here is what that new thing is:


That's all for now. Thanks to all who ever read or will read I Walk this Earth.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fishing for exposures - Berkeley, CA

Recently I purchased a Yashica twin lens reflex camera. The model was somewhat beaten up and in pieces, but I have long covetted a twin lens and was happy to pay the $15 to have the chance to reassemble one. This particular model is from 1958 and has a few peculiarities about it which I like. The first is that it shoots medium format 120 film, which I prefer for the detail it can provide. The second, is that it has a top view. That is the subject is projected onto a matte glass screen at the top of the camera, so the photographer looks down to focus on a subject, rather than look directly at him. This approach is much less confrontational and allows for greater candidness of portraiture as it is less likely to make the subject feel scrutinized. It's a small point, but being someone who prefers the candid photo to the posed, an important technicality. This is true for all twin lens cameras, with the exception of the rare model which accepts 35 mm.

That I should now have six cameras - seven if the lens on my smartphone were counted - did not seem strange to me. It only seemed unusual in that it did not feel unusual at all to have a devotion to film. Even my one concession to digital - the camera on my phone - I have only used to take images of film prints. The six other cameras span the range of available technology from 1930 to 1990, or in the case of the pinhole I use, 1850. An odd pursuit at a time when photographs are more ubiquitous and of the least worth than at any other time.

I think the analogy of fly fishing explains the fascination quite well. I have never been fly fishing, but I understand many points of similarity between that crafts. There is the technicality of the arcane and elemental equipment, the immersion of the self in the environment of study, the attention to simple lures and to distraction, the focus of the observer and of the observed, and finally, the satisfaction of a successful capture ending in release.  Either the fly fisherman or the film photographer could easily find superior ready-made products to any he could snatch from the wild, but it is with both the thrill of having wrested something lasting from the transitory, of having gained a moment of magic against time. Here is this sleek, defined image shining up through liquid silver, coming to life as it rises.

In both there is gadgetry. For the fisherfolk, there are the radar systems and fancy reels and scented baits and snap-proof line, each ensuring a reduction to the risk of an empty hook. For myself, I am often urged by the well-meaning attendants at the camera store I frequent to try digital with every available setting or light meter. Such devices might do away with underexposure and poor timing, but I have had too many beautiful mistakes from improper exposure, expired film, and mechanical caprice to consider the safeguards seriously. Complexity is anathema to proper sport, and the best hobbies require the fewest props. I find myself bemusedly mystified by digital cameras with their myriad settings as I am by pocket knives which have too many blades. A single feature is enough for the tool.

Although there is some hypocrisy here in this idea, as there are many devices now which can take and treat images far more simply and quickly than I can. Even the simplest of devices I have - a pinhole cigar box camera - still requires the chemical skill of a darkroom and - since I do not process my own film - the patience of a week to see the results of a day's shooting. The complications have only been outsourced to where they are nearly invisible. Surely it is simpler to use a digital camera. A smartphone can do some remarkable things with exposure, requiring no darkened chamber, no supply of consumable film, and no further financial output required. Is a well-composed image any less beautiful for having been taken by a cell phone? Or, put another way, are my photographs any better for the adjustment a few knobs?

Perhaps no. To continue with the analogy, I think a trout caught on a line by a skilled fisherman would still be its equal in beauty if it were caught in a basket, or a net, or shot out with a pistol. It is only the relationship between fishermand and fish, predator and prey, subject and object which would change. I would wager that any good fisherman would rather have his preferred rod in hand and be set down upright at a favorite stream than be given a magic basket which need only be dipped in water to come back brimful of trout. He might never go hungry again with the basket, but he might never again enjoy his hobby. It is the attention, the waiting, the uncertitude which make the experience. And when the fish are not biting at all, the day is not counted a waste for lack of a catch.

Even on a bad day of photography I have still seen lovely things. I remember a moment in Seattle, outside Pike Place market, when it was clouded over and drizzly. Then the wind picked up and blew a hole in the clouds so the sun shone clear on the entrance just as a party of seven or eight Navy doughboys in starched whites came out to the street. The slick cobblestones, the darkened sky, the outline of the market sign, the sun on the crisp, white uniforms. It would have made a beautiful photograph but the film I had was not properly advanced and in the few seconds it took to ready, the moment was gone. But I think of that image with almost as much pride as I do the successful exposures. If I had one of those magic cameras than could capture images night and day, shadow and light, color and black and white, close up and far away, I might never use it. Assuming I learned how to work the device properly, there would not be enough misses, enough ones-that-got-away, enough transitory scenes like that one at Pike Place. A near miss is a loss that feels like a win. It is the setup which gives drama to the catch.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Awful Mood & Coffee - Tenderloin - San Francisco

Crossing the Tenderloin, the place where the refuse of the city's grit-tide converges, balloon strings, empty bags, rotten produce, spent prophylactics.  Like the Pacific gyre, the trash of the removed consumer collecting in this ignored enclave whose blight is unknown till crossed. Something horrible hits my nose. I look around to find and escape the source, but it is myself, having trod in something heinously foul. Dog, I wonder, or human. Being the Tenderloin, the origin could be either. I try scraping against a curb, but the filth will not be moved. I wad up a paper bag and try again, holding the paper at the bare tips of my fingers, alternately brushing and retching. Peanut curry is a hard thing to hold down at such labor. While I work the greasy shit free, three men enter an alley separately and do their part to refresh the stench of stale piss. I drop the fouled paper into the storm drain and walk on, shuffling across every bit of bare dirt and green I can find, which are in no abundance.

Nearly at Union Square, I stop in at David's for a $3 cup of coffee. The coffee is thick and black and has the taste of a fisherman's thermos. Brewed fresh each day at 5 and stewed thereafter. The taste of truck stops and marinas and lumber camps and every place else where folk who are not by nature early risers wake to make diesel engines turn. Even half milk it is the color of a dun cow. A spoon could nearly stand upright in it. Not at all to my latte taste, but worth the experience to know that even in one of the great cities of the world there is still wretched coffee to be found.

David's is the only Jewish deli I know of in the city, but I have not much explored the Richmond, where I understand there is a historically larger Jewish presence. Though in my travels to that neighborhood I think more of finding peroshki than knish and cardamom buns than honey cake. This particular deli I found more-or-less by chance. Some years back when I was staying at the nearby Adelaide hostel and wandered a general path towards Union Square and passed it. I'm glad to see it is still here. I had heard some rumors to the contrary.

It has one of those long serpentine counters with the high stools and an island of condiments. The waitresses do not call me 'hon' but 'sir,' and I am content with this variation, though it is much against the usual. There is still the ceramic cup and saucer, the formica counter, the mirrored panelling, the Rita Hayworth movie someone is watching in the kitchen and whose sound comes out over the dining room. The naugehyde seats and glass front to the street, the parade of faces going past, the hiss of bus brakes. It would be a good setting for modern film noire, but no one is filming. I'm the only one here so it's all background without a foreground.

A recent oversight is troubling me, of which no one is aware but myself. That is, no one is aware of the mistake, and few of the trouble. It has me questioning my suitability for my present position, and for work in general. It would be a terrible thing if I were no good at work. I should like to enjoy whatever I choose to do, and to be good at whatever I must do, whether or not I enjoy it. 

The insecurity surprises me. I am not the confident person I thought I was. Or rather, not the confident person I present in writing. That I should make a better man in paper than in flesh. What an awful thought that is. It is a good thing to find terrible coffee to match the mood. 

It's oddly cheering.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Detritus - San Francisco

There's a charm to being frantic and uncollected in your post-grad years. It's expected. But only for so long. The statute of permissible dishevellment runs out shortly after your 27th birthday, and I am now in my thirtieth year. Whatever in life I thought I would be good at, if I have not by this age proved a talent, then I likely never will. 

There is still this beautiful youthful dream of possibility though it becomes each day crafted a bit more of memory and less of truth. Life becomes bounded at corners. You're indecisive. You are no visionary. By this point you were supposed to have written a book and learned Italian, been an admired and respected iconoclast, asked to speak at graduations of your alma mater. Every unpleasant setback was never more than just a temporary stay to your impending greatness, though you now suspect they may together have comprised the path you followed, and will themselves repeat in the coming distance.

The employment options you took which promised limited career prospects and minimal responsibility begin to appear thin and lusterless. The idea you had of making yourself a rounded individual by diversifying your skill through the employment you took calls upon you to answer the lingering question: are you rounded yet? Or will you always be in this protracted metamorphosis? You seem to always be becoming and you never just are, and not in some positive new-age spiritualist, life-is-change sense. Like a hatching egg half-committed.

Your friends make more selfish and more correct choices than to remain pot bound to your friendship. They leave for the best of reasons, for your self-involvement, your inability to see into the future, your lack of discipline. They couple off in more committed ways. They let theirs, and not your, narcissism determine their path. They get high paying jobs with benefits and commute to work from the suburbs, where they've taken up a mortgage. You're still making top ramen on a hot plate and sharing apartments with strangers to make rent.

You take again to drifting like a cellophane wrapper because it's something I can do well. Blowing about Telegraph Avenue, Ferry Terminal, Union Square, Ashby BART, and getting in the background of other people's photos, becoming wallpaper to their dreams. You melt into the urban detritus with the swirling dust and styrofoam cups into the faceless school which describes every city. Which is the city. A part of something greater and apart from something great. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Nostalgia - Embarcadero - San Francisco

You only get flashbacks if you've been in a war, or a traumatic event, or done a lot of drugs supposedly, but I still get them just the same, every day. I turn a street corner from Mission and suddenly I'm in Minneapolis. The fountain on the interior of the Marriot looks just like the one from the Courtyard hotel across the parking lot from that awful steak joint, and I didn't have to pack my bags or buy a ticket or use that foul steakhouse restroom to get here. Yet here I am the same, standing at a midnight parking lot waiting for the Milwaukee bus. I recover, which is good because I don't want to go to Milwaukee today, and move on and then a few blocks later I've stumbled into Vancouver, agog at all that glittery glass and gulls swishing between the skyscrapers, and my lack of attention has made me trip on the curb and I fall swiftly to New York, the gum-strew pavements, the harried passersby, the stench.

Since I've been back in San Francisco I've been to Chicago, Montreal, Boston, South Dakota, even Geneva, Switzerland and Rome, and I never even left the city. I didn't even want to go. I've been thinking about something else, my mind wandering on lunch, or laundry, or the myriad chores of an unspontaneous life, and had a block of Cleveland fall on top of me. Where am I? When am I? Is this even my life I'm flashing back into? These tweed pants mine? These leather shoes?

I've come to a novel time - novel for myself - that my principal joy should be nostalgia and reflection on the life I have spent rather than the one I am spending, even now measuring it away by teaspoons for the comfort of a gas range and a place to sleep. I feel old. Age has nothing to do with age. After most days of work I just want to find a warm spot to wrap myself in a blanket and fall asleep to the radio.

There is now more of my life behind me than there ever was before, and each day the amount increases. I get a little wistful over that. Not that those days are gone, but their certainty. All those days already planned out and mapped. No additional choices have to be made for them. Each worry unjustified. Each fear unfounded. And they all turned out well. There was always a meal and a bed at the end of each. None of them resulted in the death of their narrator. Sometimes I wish I could have them over, if only for the comfort of knowing the conclusion even as I lived them. All I can get is a pleasant reverie, letting my mind wander back over trails in Vermont, sunrises over lakes in Maine, and really good cups of coffee. Nostalgia is a quiet revenge on mortality. Now on the rough days, the days of bleary adult self-seriousness, every action metered out, I roll the tape back, open the book to the chapters I best like. I may be in an office on a pier under a bridge, but I'm somewhere else too. Off in New England, most likely, breaking sticks for a fire as the frogs start to croak.

I am grateful I don't have to live any of those days over again in the body. Especially the ones I got right. I don't think I could do as good a job the second time.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Book Stalking - Berkeley, CA

Caffe Mediterraneum has become my haunt for books. Like the other dens of vice and criminal caffeination I've come to prefer, it follows the Italian school of bean slinging, though the majority of staff are South American, and doesn't scrimp on the extra F. Also, it's got a pretty good book exchange on the second floor, which has so far yielded two treasures.

Originally, I had thought to do a photo series of the libaries of the bay area, defining 'library' as any congregation of two or more books. But the cost of film is never going to go down, and I have on only one occasion in life been more broke. That puts book buying out of the budget for right now too. There had been a large box of books, prints, and my entire collection of negatives which had been shipped to my address, but through some deliberate negigence on account of my landlady ("I don't know what could have happened to it. It's been on the porch for four days.") they are now irrevocably lost and as consequence she can count on someday being fictitiously - and scathingly - memorialized in my writing.

This means I've have become a more voracious book stalker.

Book stalking is simple. To start out, you simply look for books. Usually this means in bookstores, the internet, municipal libraries, thrift stores, garage sales. For the more financially strapped, it means snatching books wherever they are up for grabs. Coffee shops, at friends' houses, recycling centers, church bins, sidewalks, bus stops. Places books have gone to rest till they can be trotted out again. This really isn't that hard either, though it does require some dedication. It is one of the best ways of getting to know a city. Once convinced of all the places books can be, you go out looking for them, and soon all the previously strange streets gain the sheen of familiarity as you browse them for that elusive title.

Which brings me to the second part, which is the harder one. You have to catch the book unawares. You can't be overly picky about what title you pick up. If you have it in your mind to find the first edition Alexie you will never find it. Or even second edition or older. Unless that is the strategy of deception, and you are using the name of a better known author to cloak interest in the lesser-known, and actually desired one. In which case, you might do very well to set Alexie as your goal if, say, looking for Zusak.

Then there is the third, and final, part of book stalking. I would offer that it is best to keep an open mind and willingness to say yes to a new book. However tempting it might be to type an author's name into Google, or ask a passerby what they know about the Joneses, or to ask what Penguin editors might think of it, just grab the book and go. Read a few pages here, some there, till you are ready to read it as the author intended. Then, and only after this decision to either accept or reject the book, should you do your research. This is a wonderful gamble. If you don't like it then there wasn't much investment. And if you do, you will feel particularly lucky, blessed, fated to have to met this book.

It helps in book stalking to have a fair belief in a concept of meant-to-be, or else chance. To acknowledge the many small, wonderful, and incalculable influences which have made us each who and as we are. Then, just before reading, to succumb however briefly to nostalgia, for the book which you hold has been held before, gazed upon, carried around, examined. Unless they are in imminent danger of destruction - refuse collection, perhaps, or too near a pyromaniac convention - one title alone will suffice. At the Mediterraneum, I believe the other titles will be safe for some time, for other book stalkers or else myself.

The last book I took from the Caffe is 'An Affair of the Heart' by Dilys Powell, published 1957. The cover is torn off, showing the naked title page. Written in tidy cursive is the name E. Colson - Lusaka - June 1963. I thought Lusaka to be a family name, or perhaps somewhere in Greece since the book is about the author's travels in that country. It wasn't until I had read 54 pages in that I thought to look it up and found that Lusaka is the capital city of Zambia. Furthermore, the edition I held was not available for commercial distribution in the United States. I have a fugitive book.

This is something that no electronic book can rival. The testament of paper pages. That E Colson had read from this book in far off Zambia and it had then made its way by hands and shelves to Berkeley, California where I found it at a cafe made it exceptionally valuable. For a used book has not just the value of the author's words, but the value of the reader's experience. I enjoy when I find a book another has written in, underlined different sections, left comments in the margin. Though this particular edition of 'An Affair of the Hear' has none of that.  But it still has the really good words of Miss Powell. Listen to this:

"In 1945 I knew what the capital had undergone since I last saw it. But I could not rid myself  of my romantic ideas. I still thought of Athens as a place of sun, friendly, elegant, cosmopolitan; a place of chattering cafes, small parties, and sophisitacted argument; a place to sit on a summer evening amidst the murmur of crowds and the glimmer of bright dresses..."

How Powell has described Athens, that has been my thought of San Francisco. And when I have thought of San Francisco, I have really, I admit, been thinking of Berkeley.  The right words always come at the right time. Maybe because we never remember the wrong ones.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Telegraph Avenue - Berkeley, California

"It's an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world” ~Oscar Wilde

I had planned to reenact one of my favorite weekend pass-times in Berkeley, which is to stroll Telegraph Avenue, peaking into shops, admiring the dreds and piercings of the rail hoppers, envying the stylish eyewear of the professors, eavesdropping on the students gossiping evenly between Christopher Marlowe and whose sleeping with whom, before getting a book at Moe's books and then crossing the street to read it at Caffe Mediterraneum.

But in January Telegraph isn't as interesting as it becomes in summer, so I did the reverse and started at the cafe. In the upper floor, at the book exchange, I found exactly the book I had meant to purchase at Moe's, but better, because the copy I found was free, hardcover, and signed on the front page "Joe Greco Jr, February 23, 1948." The book in question is The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury.

My books have yet to arrive from New York, and I still haven't finished that book, the Skid Road, by Murray Morgan, a history of Seattle's first 150 years. However, I also don't have it with me, so I wouldn't be finishing it anyway.

But now in Berkeley and working in San Francisco, I thought I would read some of another historian. What Murray Morgan did for the Northwest with the Skid Road and the Last Wilderness (amazingly good books, both of them), Herbert Asbury did for San Francisco with the Barbary Coast.

Most famous for his book Gangs of New York, Asbury directed his attention to the seedy underside of San Francisco. Although he wrote during the first few decades of the 20th century, he was keenly interested in the time period from roughly 1830 to 1890, which is to say the time of greatest migration and displacement for all peoples of what is now the US.

Here is the beginning:

"The history of the Barbary Coast properly begins with the gold rush to California in 1849. If the precious yellow metal hadn't been discovered in the auriferous sands of the Sacramento Valley, the development of San Francisco's underworld in all likelihood would have proceeded according to the traditional pattern and would have been indistinguishable from that of any other large American city. Instead, owing almost entirely to the influx of gold-seekers and the horde of gamblers, thieves, harlots, politicians and other felonious parasites who battened upon them, there arose a unique criminal district that for almost seventy years was the scene of more viciousness and depravity, but which at the same time possessed more glamour, than any other area of vice and iniquity on the American continent."

I haven't read as good a beginning to a book since "Call me Ishmael."