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."

Sunday, January 13, 2013

From the Vault: Baltimore Amtrak

Driving northeast PA + central NY

I borrowed a car and headed out from my parents' house to visit my sister's family outside Syracuse. I-84 thru Scranton to i-81 at Binghamton, then to NY 80 and 20.

It was a pretty sight. Rolling snowy hills of woods and farms, cleverly hiding - in winter! - the snaking railroads, the cookie-cutter houses, the junklots. Trees in fluted shapes from their competition for light. A low, dishwater grey sky hid the sun. A smoggy mist of woodsmoke and dew shrouding the river valleys. The great eyesore of the interstate highway humming beneath me. Good, grey places, befitting my monochromatic palette preferences.

I feel a fondness for this country, Pennsylvania and whatever else there is of New York north of Rockland. I don't want to say patriotism, as I don't feel particularly patriotic about the US. I'm not proud to be an American, I merely don't mind it. It's just something that happened to me. Besides, patriotism is about nationhood, and a nation is a people. There aren't many nations I gladly call myself member of. But a country, a country holds a people, or peoples, and I've enjoyed every country I've been to, though I've encountered some unpleasant nations occupying those countries. (mostly lesser, petty principalities of the NO TRESPASSING variety)

This country though is familiar from childhood. Oddly, in reflection, I am surprised at how much of it I have seen from this identical thoroughfare. How many hours tallying up to months - years? - of time have I whiled away inside of an automobile? How many errands dragged along to in infancy, coming along for the ride because I couldn't be left at home? Looking out the glass window, the fluted trees, the rolling snowy hills, the droning interstate. Strange the things we get wistful for.

I think most people feel at some point a desire to go back to where they had been a child, if only for a brief while. To the familiar topography and simplicity and looming dark confusion. To the maternal feeling of belonging to a place. It's like what William Burroughs said in 1950 when asked what he would like for dinner. ("A Lake Huron bass from 1920) Personally, I wouldn't mind spending an afternoon in 1992. Provided I would not be required to go along grocery shopping or be obliged to wait in the car.

Just before crossing the state line, I listened to the second half of a hockey game broadcast from Binghamton, not out of any real interest in the sport aside from nostalgia. When I was an undergrad hockey was the only sport that people actually went to see. Of course, there were few alternatives for spectators, as aside from swimming and track the college lacked all other athletic affiliation. Hockey was the sole incarnation of grownup capture-the-flag on menu. The game fizzled out of reception shortly after it was won in a decisive goal an Ontario guardsmen snuck past a Quebecois goalie in the American league.

After that I just let the radio scan thru for nearly a half an hour, playing a slurry of country-western-rockabilly-Jesus, gradually settling onto conservative talk radio, till I got disgusted at the rage and contempt of the host and switched to liberal talk radio, till I got bored at the polite delicacy of panel and let it cycle again. The music stations trotted out the old garage metal of the 1980s like they would never go away, with an occasional dip into the most insipid pop of the present day. I cantankerously switched off the radio.

There's a danger in going back to the place you last lived as an adolescent.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

From the Vault: New Orleans

New York - looking at Manhattan from Brooklyn

More than any other city, New York is the metropolis we like to see destroyed. It's been inundated by rising seas, subsumed in snowstorms, shaken in earthquakes, blown up by aliens, savaged by giants, flooded with ghosts, and been the very battle ground of good versus evil. It's expected that whatever the lineup of next summer's thrillers, in at least one of them, New York will sustain some hefty damage.

But really there could be more diversity of destruction, not just in location but method. Perhaps if there were an exit poll of movie goers, and you were asked 'if you enjoyed this cataclysm, would you mind taking a few minutes to answer some questions?'

What was most satisfying about seeing New York destroyed?

Would you like to see New York destroyed again?

How would you like to see New York destroyed?

If you could suggest another city to be destroyed on film, which would you choose?

In what ways could we show a more multi-cultural, global perspective?

For myself, I think I enjoyed most New York when it was bombarded with meteors in the movie Armageddon. Oh, mind you, it wasn't a good film, just enjoyable to watch the beloved and bally-hooed cap of the Chrysler building get lopped off by space debris. Though, in honesty, Vancouver is the city I'd most like to see hit by asteroids. All that glass...

However, I would enjoy seeing San Francisco entirely and simultaneously dissolve into atoms and settle into a shroud of colored fog on the hills. And I would like it very much if every edifice in Saint Louis sprouted legs and scurried away, the famed arch last seen high-stepping the prairie, cozying up to a flock of Dakota windmills. The residents of Chicago could wake up to find themselves in a pinwheel-fitted paper city which blew over onto cornfields, while Toronto became overnight stacks of fruit and jelled aspic.

Abroad, Paris maybe could undergo a series of severe hauntings, because isn't that what we expect from Old World architecture? Maybe its statuary comes to life and starts carving sculpted paramours from the tamer marble, bringing down impressive collonades of the beaux-arts. Rome just sinks into itself, collapsing like a pudding. London took the hint and became fixed onto postcards and dispersed itself via the post before it could be levelled, bits of its paper shrapnel stuck to refrigerators and cork boards the world over.

The European cities are not only full of people, but cultural fountains and historic repositories. It is more emotionally engaging to fret over the destruction of artistic masterpieces than the collapse of wall street high rises. And, for Americans, there is the worry too for a hero. Will Bruce Willis even try to save the Trevi Fountain?

I still think it could work, though when these cities have been shown in film in moments of trial, they've largely been historic ones because they've actually undergone the sort of ugly chaotic upheaval we assign to fictive monsters for our own cities, even though New York has weathered unrest from within (the draft riots of 1863) and without (2001)

Further and further. Lest we confine attentions to the glittery urban areas of the world and deny the third world its chance at onscreen fame, there are plenty of cities of in developing countries which could be destroyed - Delhi, Cairo, Shenzhen, Bogota - but to see these metropoles undergo the sort of stern emotional demolitions regularly foisted upon New York seems cruel and unnecessary. We might laugh or cringe to see Miami done away with, but to see the same done to Mumbai would be sorrowful. We would shake our heads as the flames or floods licked up the slums. Those poor people, we would say. No, there couldn't be much satisfaction in that.

But New York could take the blows, rebuilding every time from the rubble, its too-big-to-fail, candy-apple, trashy self rising up from the debris. It will just have to go on being hollywood's king martyr, getting smashed, wrecked, crumbled, folded, stomped on, torn apart, burned, swallowed, and sunk over and over and over.

Friday, January 4, 2013


My credit card expired a few days before, I spent the last of my cash to get some film processed into prints, and I had a few hundred dollars in my bank account, total. I hadn't even taken the bus back from the developer because I didn't have enough change to take two buses that evening and I had to be at Seatac by 8. 

I had been thinking as I walked back to Wallingford that maybe I shouldn't spend so much money during the next month. But what exactly did I spend money on? Mainly rent, groceries, and bus fare. I couldn't really cut that stuff out. So the three remaining items which made the dollars in my wallet flutter hastily away were film, coffee, and books. I got a windfall of books from a roommate, so with a little will power, and a well-used library card should be able to avoid any more literary expenditure till February, maybe even March.

Then there's coffee. I like the good stuff. If I just enjoyed drip I could make it at home, but I like a latte, just one, just a little one, 8 oz, single shot, whole milk, with a well-poured leaf. I won't go just anywhere, either. I've got standards, and there are few places that have met the measure of what I like. I don't just mean flavor, but presentation. Whoever is whipping up that drink, well it doesn't hurt if they've got nice eyes and good skin. I think it's perfectly justifiable to prefer one coffeeshop over another based solely on how ogle-able you find the waitstaff. And I probably spend, over the course of a year, something around 7, 8 hundred dollars on fancy, frou-frou drinks. I could just stay home and have drip, if I liked drip, or just drink more tea. I like tea. I have about a half-gallon of it a day. There's only so much caffeine the brain can take. But this petty luxury, why not keep it? What great adventurous joy can I even afford? Why not keep this modest extravagance, this $4 peep show?

There's the barista at Zoka who has impeccably nice teeth and fastidiously shaped eyebrows. The upside-down peace sign tattoo on the neck is a bit much, but the neck itself is exquisite. Svelte, muscular, slightly translucent. Maybe that's why the tattoo, to draw attention or else uglify that natural bit of beauty and consequently make it more attractive. The way some men feel about legs and mini-skirts, well, that's how I feel about necks and low collars.

Then there's the crew at the Ugly Mug, every one of which could be a model for a shampoo commercial. Long, ebony tresses or sculpted locks and blemishless skin. The baristas at Miro, who also have quite smooth skin, perhaps because Miro is a tea house and they take in less saturated fat. And Trabant, which has a staff which is professional, mature, and hirsute. Trabant is the only coffee place I go to because I like their drinks.

And the atmosphere of ideas, everyone ticking away at their private chunk of rough granite, hoping to make that soaring draft, that shining poem, that transcendent song, that excellent translation of the sutras. This company of toiling artists. That's the good stuff. I would hate to give that up.

But...film. Yes, I could cut back. It costs about $45 to buy film, get it processed, scanned, and printed. I could just not buy any of that stuff, but that seems crass. I can't imagine Michelangelo saying to his admirers, 'sorry fellas, no more painting. It's gotten rather pricey,' or Shakespeare telling his patrons 'the new folios will have to wait. I don't feel like buying any more ink.'

I walked past the friend I have who sells the street papers. I write friend, but she is, of course, a friend of a friend, and even that position may be tenuous, to judge from the response I received when I mentioned to our circle that I had seen her selling the Real Change.

"Oh, her, yes she's been down on her luck. It's a bad situation and that's really all I can say about it."


"Yes, but that's nothing new. I don't really know what's happened to her. It's been more than a year since I've seen her anywhere besides outside the QFC."

A friend twice removed, perhaps. I friend to the second degree, or third. A facebook friend. She waved at me and greeted me by name as I came up.

"I haven't read this one," I said. It was a new edition, printed the day before.

"It's got a good story on Ari Shapiro," she said.

"The White House correspondent for NPR, right?"

"Yeah, that's right. It's a really good interview. He's seen some stuff."

I pulled out a dollar for the issue while we bantered. I could barely afford to keep my head above water, and here I was giving money away. But there are limits to thrift.

As I got on the bus for the airport, the city became suddenly, startlingly distant. The skyline just a paper cutout, the windows lit but uninhabited, the cookiecutter, paint-by-number shops all closed. Everything so sweepingly monotonized, so completely shorn of individuality to a conglomerate shopping mall, a rambling Ikea, a colossal Starbucks. I remember Boston looking just that way when I left it, like it had turned its back. Do all cities swiftly turn so mundanely hostile just before you're about to leave?

Stow the bag, line up for security, take off the shoes, adjust the time, turn off the phone, put on the shoes, walk to the gate, get on board....

The flight attendant passes me a packet as I go thru the door. A snooze kit, the lettering says, "everything you need to help you doze off faster." I open it and find a pair of earplugs and a sleeping mask but no suicide pill. I jam the earplugs in and marvel how they dampen the sound of the engines and nearly block the banal familiarity of the flight attendants - enunciate the consonants, smile at the vowels - but in no way diminish the screams of the pouting infant several rows behind me. I check the package again, but no, this is it. Jet Blue does not believe in assisted death even for the comfort and convenience of its passengers.

I looked out the window as we taxied to the runway. It was snowing. Well, technically it would be classed as 'wintry mix' which is about as close as Seattle ever gets to snow. But 'wintry mixing' sounds like what the Romneys do at Aspen. What's the word for that?  Apr├Ęs ski? Well anyway, when i looked onto the wing i didn't see Mitt & Liz shaking cocktails with the Kennedys. So let's say it was snowing.

The screaming baby continues to register its indignation and I go thru my preflight panic, wondering how this origami crane of folded aluminum foil is going to get me to New York, and why the stewardesses always refuse to give me a drink before takeoff, and how this time I will try harder to not feel like a failure when I sleep in my childhood bed - my only New Years resolution.

I suck air hurriedly, shoddily into my lungs with the enthusiasm of a swimmer recovering from a near-drowning, trying to get myself high on something before this hermetically sealed tube foists me onto the sky.