Madison Ave Winter

I know, I know, but we’re just not used to this here.


PEACE, 2013

About a year ago while looking in my rearview mirror in heavy traffic I became very interested in the comings and goings of the cars behind me. The scenes unfolded like little vignettes of humanity. People laughing, arguing, crying, but mostly just looking bored or trapped within their own heads as well as the glass and metal box they confine themselves to in their daily commutes to work. I immediately thought of this picture taken by my father of my mom and me within the frame of our VW bug windshield. This picture and the frames appearing in my rearview mirror became the basis of my latest photography project.

It was a little tricky figuring out how I was going to achieve what I had envisioned but I would ultimately mount a digital camera in my rear window and use a remote cable to trigger the shutter. It took awhile to get the focus and exposure down correctly. Because I couldn’t use autofocus I needed to zone focus so that everything from about 10 – 16 feet would be reasonable sharp. When I got the technique down I still wasn’t satisfied with my results because of the fact that people were recognizing the camera fairly easily and were suspicious . There is a long history of documenting people without them noticing, Walker Evans subway series for one. Bernarda Bryson Shahn told me that when her husband, the artist Ben Shahn was documenting for the WPA he had a right angle mirror attachment on his lens and she would pose for him while he was actually shooting his subjects perpendicular to the direction he appeared to be shooting. I solved this problem by buying a small stuffed bird, ripping out the stuffing and cutting a hole for the lens. I mounted this “bird cam” behind my backseat. It is now almost impossible to figure out what I’m doing and the pictures suddenly became what I had seen on the day that I conceived of the idea.

I spend 3 1/2 to 4 hours a day commuting in my car. I have found a way to work on a photography project without much demand on my time. These are the kinds of pictures I have always taken anyway except now I am within the confines of my car taking photographs of my subjects within the confines of theirs.

Now in my 50th year I find myself thinking a lot about time. The way I usually equate time is through events or milestones. Because dog’s lives are so much shorter than our own, having a dog causes us to witness an accelerated microcosm of our own life. I have been a constant dog owner. Here is my life in dogs.

Fritz

One day when I was six years old living in Tudor Court, my grandfather showed up with a little black ball of a puppy. I spent the next 4 hours scheming with my mom on how we were going to present this to my dad. If I remember correctly he was eating dinner when he heard soft little yelps emanating from the living room. My father wasn’t crazy about the idea of a dog but tolerated him. I named that puppy Fritz after the son of the guy who was building our new house. Fritz was a smart, athletic dog that had 9 lives. I remember him being hit by a car and a motorcycle on two different occasions. He was always running away (we never had him neutered) the evidence of which was one of the neighbor’s new puppies which when it grew up was Fritz’s double. Fritz settled down a lot in his old age. When my parents divorced and I went off to college my dad and Fritz bonded. Fritz would pace around the house keeping in constant motion, I imagine because it hurt too much to stop. He would have a hard time getting back up once lying down. In the end my father would have to carry him outside to relieve himself. My dad knew it was time to take Fritz to be put”to sleep”, he just kept putting it off. When he finally took him to the vet for the last time it was he who held him as he passed.

Emma

A smart, contemplative, melancholic dog. We chose Emma because she was the only dog not barking or making a fuss while walking through the pound . She stood at the back of the pen sheepishly staring at me. This is the dog I wanted. My ex-wife named her Emma after the daughter on the popular television series at the time “Thirty Something”, it fit. I think Emma may have been abused as a puppy because she would cower when an object was picked up too quickly near her. It took awhile for us to gain her trust but she eventually came out of her shell. When my first wife and I split, I got Emma. Emma and I lived in some pretty dismal places and I shared my food with her. Her funniest trait and the reason I referred to her as melancholic was her constant sighing. I think Emma grew to think of herself as my equal. We went everywhere together, she didn’t need a leash. Emma was good-natured and accepted whom ever I brought into our lives, girlfriends, wives, children Emma put up with or loved them. When dementia started to set in and Emma started mistaking indoors with outdoors I knew it was time. I held Emma when she was euthanized and I’d never cried so much in my life. Emma was the best dog I had ever had.

Annie

I was dogless for 5 years when I felt that canine yearning again. Annie was chosen off the internet, not the best way to adopt a dog. It took me awhile before I warmed up to this nervous little creature, my wife even longer. My son however immediately loved her as I had loved Fritz. We named her after a bottle of ketchup on the dining room table. I kept Annie with me constantly the first 6 months we had her which was why she was so successfully housebroken. I was able to bring her with me to work everyday and she developed her amazing ability to ride in a car. I’ve never had an animal that was so good in the car. She jumps in the car and lays down in the backseat foot wells and sleeps until we get to our destination. Annie’s bad traits are her nervousness, which makes her a chewer. She’s chewed through drywall and our sneakers. If you bring anything new into the house and she sees that you need or want that item, she’ll take it and chew it to pieces. Her other con is her smell, which I attribute to her nervousness. Its sort of homeless person mixed with cooked peas. This smell requires her to be bathed pretty regularly. Time will tell where she ranks amongst other dogs but I have grown fond of her just the same.

Dog’s lives become milestones of our own. There really is nothing better than getting to know a dog. The only downside is their lives are so short by the time you get to know them they’re gone.

I’m not a spiritual person and except for my brief dalliance with divinity. I consider myself an atheist. So how did something that happened last year lead me to question some of my preconceptions?

My mother died a year ago today. While that in and of itself is a significant occurrence in a person’s life, it pales to a day that happened two weeks before this. My mom had been diagnosed with bladder cancer in January of 2011. Bladder cancer is typically curable, except my mother’s cancer was in a much more advanced stage. Knowing her cancer was stage 4 and not wanting to deal with chemotherapy she chose to go the natural route and went to Mexico. After a week of intensive vitamin supplement therapies she made it home in a weakened state. In pain and not able to keep any food down, she went into the hospital at home where they put a nasogastric tube through her nose down to her stomach to relief pressure. My mother for years had suffered with colitis and the doctors were thinking that the colitis was flaring up because of the stress she was undergoing and this was causing a blockage in her intestines. The idea was to get the inflammation down and the blockage will go away. After 2 weeks of this and no relief, the decision was made to send her to The Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia where they specialized in intestinal surgery.

I decided to take the day off from work, drive to Philly and visit my mother in the hospital. It was a Thursday. She didn’t want me to take the day off to come and visit her. “Wait until the weekend, come down on Saturday” she said. I reassured her that It was fine for me to take the day off and I would see her the next day. I called my friend Tim and told him I would be down and I would have breakfast with him in the morning before going up to the hospital, visiting hours started at noon.

I got down to Philadelphia around 9:30 am and called Tim from outside his house. No answer. Strange, his car was parked on the street. I walked up to his front door and rang the bell, waited, nothing. I went back to my car and tried to call again, again no response. I waited in front of his house for about half an hour and tried to call one more time, still no answer. This time I left a message. “I’m going to the hospital to see if I can get in early, call you later”

When I arrived at the hospital and parked, for some reason I decided to check my email. There was a message from my mother which said it was good that I was coming because she had to go in for emergency surgery immediately and she could see me when she woke up. She had very bad phone reception from her hospital room and took to emailing everyone. I immediately made my way up to her floor. They were prepping my mom when I got to her room. I was able to spend a few minutes with her and walk with her gurney holding her hand to the elevator. The nurse told me to go up to a family waiting area and “check in”. When I did and they said it would take about two hours I decided to go get something to eat.

Tim called me when I got down to the street. “I don’t know what happened, I couldn’t wake up” he said. “I turned my phone off for some reason which I never do and I didn’t hear the doorbell”. “I’m glad you didn’t wake up” I said.

Forty five minutes later my cell phone rang and it was her surgeon. “Can you come to the family waiting area now”? It was way too soon for the surgery to be over, I was about 3 blocks away and I ran full-out to get back to the hospital. I had a bad feeling and knew something was wrong. When I arrived upstairs the surgeon greeted me with a sorrowful look on his face. “When we opened your mom up her insides were so diseased with cancer we closed her back up. We took the NG tube out and put in a Gastrostomy so she should be more comfortable. “How long does she have”? I asked. “she wont be able to eat anymore and won’t be able to absorb any nutrition so only a few days to a week, I’m sorry” he said. “I want to tell her when she wakes up” I said. “OK, I can certainly be there and tell her if you want” The surgeon said. “No” I said “I want to do this”.

I waited the longest hour of my life for my mom to come out of the anesthesia. As I sat at the foot of her bed and she stated to stir, I finally understood what dread feels like. Her hand first went to her nose, as she felt nothing there a smile came to her face. Then she began pulling the covers back and touching her stapled together pelvis and with a dry raspy voice said “what happened”? “Mom, it’s not good” I said. Her hand immediately went up in the air and turned palm up, a gesture that I immediately recognized from my grandfather, her father, which meant oh well what are you gonna do? She immediately fell back to sleep with what seemed like relief from finally knowing what she already knew.

I don’t know if it was coincidence or some divine intervention but I felt compelled to go down that day. Something caused me to be in the right place at the right time during every event that unfolded. I was there for a reason that day, I’m sure of this. And even though it was one of the worst days imaginable, I can’t think of any place I would have rather been.

I stealthily maneuvered around in the pouring rain taking pictures waiting for Ron Paul to address thousands on Independence Mall yesterday. The same event I photographed 4 years earlier. I wasn’t there to hear the message, I know the message. I was there to be in the moment. I was there because I like to go back and see the same things and take comfort when they remain the same. For me, yesterday was all about that.

I first went to Little Pete’s on 17th and Chancellor about 30 years ago. It was one of the few places to eat which was open 24 hours in Center City Philadelphia. On any given day in the wee hours of the morning it wasn’t uncommon to see a celebrity sprinkled amongst the drunks at the large kidney-shaped counter. If you were unfortunate enough to need to use the bathroom you got a glimpse of the kitchen which was somehow connected to the bathroom in some weird way. From the cigarette machine that’s built into the vestibule when you walk in with the back of the machine sticking out into the restaurant to the hanging plastic planters to the tiny booths that flank the right side of the place each with a sign stating 2 or more only! Little Pete’s remains an oasis of unchanged nostalgia. We don’t go there for the ambience though it has immeasurable amounts of that. We go for the Little Pete’s Reuben.


If you’ve ever read a history of the Reuben sandwich you’ll see all sorts of conflicting stories as to who invented it or how it’s supposed to be crafted. None of this matters after you taste a Little Pete’s Reuben. They use corned beef, Swiss, Russian dressing and a small amount of sauerkraut on rye. Then they put the whole sandwich on the griddle like a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s easily one of the best sandwiches you’ll ever eat and nothing like the pile of meat over kraut, completely covered with Swiss cheese that everyone else seems to pass off as a Reuben here in the northeast.

As I sat with my friend of 30 years in one of the 2 or more booths eating my favorite sandwich in my favorite familiar city I felt content knowing that some things remain unchanged for the better.

Of all the topics I’ve ever brought up in my life the existence of Extra Terrestrials elicits the strongest responses. Religion, Politics, Gay Marriage, all no matches for E.T.s. The responses vary from “Oh, I saw mine when I was 16″ to “Don’t ever bring this up again!!”. I have learned to keep my mouth shut about my encounter. But now through the magic of the internet and the blogosphere I will recount my story.

It was a spring night in 1988, my wife at the time and I were leaving our 3rd floor walk-up apartment in the heart of Closter New Jersey on our way to have dinner at her parents house. As soon as we stepped out the door we were aware of a sound, a low pulsating rumble coming from the south-west. As we crossed the street we stopped. Something caught our attention, lights, off in the distance coming toward us. The lights, which were in a distinct pattern, appeared to be very far away yet as we watched them approach seemed to take no time at all to reach us. All the while the sound grew louder. It was spring and still fairly light out but I couldn’t make out the overall shape of what the lights were attached to. We bantered back and forth, “What do you think it is?”, “Maybe its lots of helicopters flying in formation”. Whatever it was it was extremely large, large enough to make you turn your head from side to side to see the lights on opposing ends. When it was directly overhead you could feel the presence of the thing, like when you can feel mass even if you aren’t touching it. Then as soon as it moved over us we watched it disappear as quickly as it had approached. We looked at each other realizing that we both knew we had gone through something neither of us had ever experienced. At that moment I realized we were literally standing in the middle of the street, normally a very busy street at about 7pm on a week night, yet there wasn’t a car to be found and the sidewalks were deserted as well.

When we got to my in-laws house we recanted the story to my father in-law. He was a scientist and pragmatic guy in general. After laughing and rolled his eyes, he dismissed our story and hypothesized that it was a military operation, that is until the next day. He called us to say that he had read an article in The Bergen Record which stated that other people had witnessed the same thing. The article then went on to say that it had followed up with all the area military bases and all denied having anything up in the air the night before.

What I saw was real. I don’t know what it was but I know it was not a B-52 or a blimp which were the biggest things I had ever seen up in the sky. I have met other people who have had similar experiences and I have read accounts by people who are “way out there” I have also spoken with people who are very religious and become very angry when the whole subject is mentioned. In my mind one thing is certain, whether through fear or fascination most of us share a common bond in thinking that we may not be the only beings in the universe.

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