Life is like a line.
It is a single line,
endless from beginning to start.
You can only see
as far as your horizon takes you,
and that is why the line is endless.
That line remains,
and only you make it move.
You can make it move
every time you make a decision.
Every time you deviate
from what makes you still,
in beautiful vibrations of life.
In cities with public transportation, a subculture of completely random people exists. There are neighborhoods of people; families, cliques and groups, housemates, coworkers, students, mysterious strangers. Most of these people do not interact with each other, and yet the train is a social network that connects people in a special way. It’s my hope, through this series of short stories, to bring light to the tunnels below our feet, and discover the subculture that defines our cities.
I started riding the MBTA subway (a.k.a. “the T”) in Boston when I was a freshman in college. For locals to that area, it was the Green Line B train. I got my first tour of the city on that train as a pre-frosh in orientation. Some of the students I was with had never been to Boston, let alone the United States. It was a thrilling experience for all of us. Things seemed a lot bigger back then.
The trains looked old and heavily used. There was a “subway” smell of burnt rubber and hot metal that resonated. The sound of the electric current pushing the train forward was unique, almost unearthly. I took it all in as we got on the train like wandering tourists. People of all makes and sizes were already there, watching us enter the train with cautious yet indifferent eyes. The girls looked at the guys, and the guys looked at the girls.
Our orientation guide took us to Newbury Street for ice cream at J.P. Licks. I wandered off to a small bistro down the street with a guy I got chummy with that first day. That friendship was short-lived; we took different programs at school, and rarely saw each other after that.
The T fare used to be tokens before it changed to electronic cards and paper tickets. I remember the sound tokens made when dropped on the ground, like quarters on brick stone, echoing. Our guide gave us tokens that time around, but a monthly pass was essential later on to see every inch of Boston. And I would learn over the next few years, every inch of the city was different, and worth exploring.
Before I knew it, I was at the train station in San Bernardino, and Barnhart, my host out there, was ten minutes away with his girlfriend, Gigi. “Don’t go exploring, you’re in gang territory,” says Gigi over Barnhart. “Gang territory?” (It kind of felt like a shady place to stick around.) “Yeah, you know, the Bloods and the Crypts do business out there. Don’t wear anything red.” I look down at my red plaid shirt, and I start to panic. “I’m wearing red. Come find me, now.” Gigi takes the phone and says, “Get yourself inside somewhere. We’re on our way,” and before the line cuts off, I hear her say “shit” under her breath.
I waited at the Doughnut King nearby. The nice Asian shop owner gave me some extra doughnuts with my egg, ham, and cheese sandwich order. It was terrible. I picked at it enough to get my fill just as Barnhart and Gigi arrived. I was so glad to be leaving that area; some kids were loitering outside the shop, giving me funny looks. Barnhart was driving a big white truck, holding a 64-ounce cup of diet coke from Circle K. We had a quick hug and shake, and I threw my bags in the backseat. Barnhart had a ruffled look about him, as if hadn’t slept much lately.
Barnhart used to work in real estate back east, but was originally from California. After a two-month solo adventure in Cambodia that almost got him arrested and killed, he returned home to begin more lucrative ventures. He started a delivery business that covers most of the area, and that has been his most recent passion project. For as long as I’ve known him, he has always worn Berkenstock sandals, in every occasion. Even in the midst of winter, he’d wear those sandals.
The drive was comical. Barnhart kept the 64-ounce cup of diet coke in his lap, and while driving with his left hand, he played the drums with a bound bundle of chopsticks in his right. The radio was not on, but still he kept a beat while asking me how things were going. The conversation was nice enough. On occasion he would drift into a separate conversation with Gigi, who sat in the back. The highway drive was dangerous like this, but I didn’t mind. My eyes were too busy looking out at the mountains ahead.
Walking into the Pratt Student Art Gallery, I notice a large framed print of a homeless man whose face is obscured by the metallic structure of New York City. “This is one of those pieces where you can clearly identify New York as the geography.” The picture centers the man on a signature example of objective street life.
Perpendicular to this opening piece, an incredibly close profile of a woman’s hands are captured in vivid detail. Their self-embrace is intimate. Every piece in the show has this sort of candid, subjective quality, rich with personal urban narratives. Some are warm despite the cold, and some leave us wondering what, why, and how.
Some of these pictures offer an odd distance between the subject and the viewer. There is no need to identify the subject. An old, feeble hand, decorated with golden rings and a manicure, holds an expensive bottle of prescription heart medicine.
One photo shows a woman emptying her purse on the street among pedestrians and shadowy strangers. That is not what draws my eye. The contents of her purse sprawled on the dirty sidewalk offer a glimpse into her life and culture. Chase Manhattan bank card, iTunes gift card, stamp-set “Get Healthy America” food and fitness cards, business cards and post-its, half-regurgitated out of the mouth of a knock-off Louis Vuitton bag. Perhaps she’s waiting for the bus.
A retail space under construction was once an ATM kiosk, and the last remaining proof of it remains in a window’s wax labeling, almost scraped away, much like the retail space inside. Desolation, destruction, a passive interpretation of future creations that will one day cover up the past.
“I’m only giving you views I want you to see.”
Roughly one foot from the ground, the photographer’s camera captures a letter of emotion and sincerity. The keywords “My dearest… jail… streets… dead or in jail…” stick out. This letter had so much brevity, and yet it’s cast aside, littered and left to no voice, a watery pickup of sewer streets, a dirty home for a dirty life.
A Styrofoam food container hangs motionlessly between the belly of a city trash can and the unidentified hand that releases it. More human interaction exists around it, but only to further illustrate the scene aptly captured in visual clarity. What will happen when time catches up with it, transforming the passive to active?
Ben Zucker’s exhibit “In Between Before and After” and other works are available for purchase through his Blurb page here.
It happens every so often to us all – we remember our dreams vividly. That, in its own way, is a blessing, but some may disagree. The nature of some dreams may be so eclectic, kinetic, and far-fetched, that one has no choice but to follow along with it. And then we delve into nightmares, and painful recurring dreams that seem to haunt us for no reason. But there is a reason; just as there is a reason we have good dreams, and everything in between.
Some people study dreams for a living. I can’t begin to understand the discriminating explanations some people have for imagining things in your subconscious. The existence of a spider in some dreams shouldn’t necessarily represent an aversion for something, because that’s just silly. The connection should be simple and straightforward. It depends on the context of the dream – like if the spider laid an egg, or attacked something greater than itself. That’s why remembering your dreams can be a blessing.
Dreams teach us something. Consider the following dream I had recently. I was at home, and I had just finished a conversation with my folks about a job I applied for and expressed an interest in. The job in my dream was the same as the one in my waking life, so the familiarity was strong, and everything felt real. I expressed a lot of doubt when talking to my folks. I get a phone call (after expressing doubt) from the recruiter saying they didn’t think this role was right for me, to which I queue the hard sell of myself, convincing them that I am right for the role. They patch me through the hiring manager, and I tell her the same thing. She asks me if I want this job, and I say “yes.” She replies and says the job is mine, and then plants an idea in my mind that sticks with me after I wake up. She told me to “smile more.”
Since then, I’ve kept that lesson on the front-burner. It’s happened before, and I usually thread the moral into stories. This time, however, the lesson was more direct. I’m convinced that dreams manifest these unconsidered ideas, and it’s a blessing to remember them.