Let me assure you: poverty porn is bothersome. I know about it firsthand. Before I got my job at the consulate and moved to Morningside Heights, I lived in a section of Newark that became notorious for its mean streets and abandoned buildings. Tourists from the suburbs would cruise through; sometimes only two towns and a mere ten minutes west on the highway, rolling in station wagons, gawking at the broken windows and the drunks outside the liquor stores. Some contributing to the litter problem with their backseat trash. Some of them shooting pictures.
I understand why these sorties into our territory outraged my peers. I know why tyres were slashed, even if I was always loath to participate in violence against exploitative outsiders, however justified it might have been.
Yet I must admit to a weakness for the poetry of the torn brick wall. A tower of brick, ripped away from the houses around it, maybe jutting off into the sky, its edge serrated, snaggle-toothed, a window to nowhere through which you another window might be visible across an alley — all this begs to be photographed.
I don’t think of myself as a professional, naturally; I’m an amateur aesthetician with a desire to chronicle these sights before they succumb to the bulldozer, or to the developer or slum-clearer. They deserve the dignity of recognition. So I do take my Nikon from place to place along the East Coast when I get a day off of my duties at the consulate. Many of the old sites worth photographing have, even in the five years or so since I began my project, fallen away as the value of land in the urban cores continues its spike. Newark has been covered, I am afraid. I’ve found good shooting in Bridgeport, Connecticut, believe it or not, and Wilmington, Delaware (I don’t care to visit Camden or Chester, Pennsylvania as I find both cities somewhat featureless.) Mostly, though, I go to Baltimore.
It is a city that throws its arms around its visitors. In its rude juxtapositions of styles and people of all walks of life, its culture and its totems, it reminds me very much of the Newark I knew as a younger man. Baltimore has its own language of signs: the Utz girl, the winking Natty Boh gentleman, the oriole and the raven, the fudge-dipped Berger cookie, the goldenrod-yellow shazam in the city logo. Then there is the crab cake, of course, and woe betide the traveler who steps between the passionate partisans in the crab cake war!
My plan that afternoon was to scout locations on the East Side and shoot around Butchers Hill, and then ride to the Market for a crab cake. In my view there is simply no better crab cake than the jumbo lump cake at the Market, fresh, stained orange-red with Old Bay, falling apart with blue crab. Do bear in mind that this is the opinion of an outsider, and one who will always yield to the authority of the locals.
On the bus ride down I kept the bicycle folded and within my control. Citizen folding bikes have a hinge in the center, you see, so the two wheels collapse on each other; it’s a sort of unexpected abridgment of a bicycle that non-riders are always amazed by. The seat collapses down into the body and the handlebars swing down to catch on a clasp atop the front fender. It’s all quite cleverly arranged to keep the grease of the chain from rubbing off on your trousers.
Nonetheless it is not quite small enough to fit under the seat, so I had to angle it a bit up against the bus window and allow the back wheel to dig into my thigh. My neighbor in the aisle seat did not look favorably upon the bicycle and even made a few rude comments as we rode. Had he a less portly disposition I believe he would have felt less threatened by the bicycle but I did understand how this contraption on my lap might have discomfited him. So I tucked myself hard against the wall of the bus and jammed the tyre harder between my knees, which did cut off some circulation to my legs. It was a long ride.
By the time we reached Baltimore, my right foot was tingling and the wheel had imprinted a muck mark in my travel trousers. This irritated me: I try to keep my clothing clean. We hit tremendous traffic on I-95 just north of the bus station, too, which heightened my sense of impatience. I used the opportunity to scan the horizon for sites.
Right off an exit ramp I spied a stand of houses that seemed properly forlorn: vacant lot at the corner behind a tall cyclone fence, and a row of top storeys with vacant windows. Yes, this would do to start. From there I would cycle north to the park and then turn toward the Market for a well deserved crab cake. To distract myself from my foot I imagined the melting texture of the crabmeat, that sweetness, the way the flesh yielded and parted at the prodding of the plastic fork. Also the saltines. Before I knew it we were there. I bid a good afternoon to the man traveling beside me and pointed out that the bicycle had not hurt him one bit. To this he had nothing to say. I unfolded the bike, hopped on, and headed straight for the houses I’d seen from the bus windows. Once there, I unslung my Nikon and started shooting.
I have certain rules and I attend to them scrupulously. First, it is vital that there be no human beings in the shot. Unauthorized street photography of strangers is exploitative. It is always wrong to treat people, especially poor people, like exhibits at a zoo. I shoot structures that are more or less uninhabitable, so this is usually not a problem, but every now and then a face sneaks into the frame. I discard these photos and destroy the negatives.
Second, no matter how I am tempted, I must never step foot on the property I am shooting. I must set up on the sidewalk, or in the road, or from a park or another piece of land held by the public. There is no need to be invasive: if the building is as powerful a sight as I believe it is, it will speak for itself. Finally, and most importantly, should anyone tell me to stop for any reason, I must stop. Not just police or other uniformed personnel, mind you; a washerwoman on the corner might have her reasons, and I am duty bound to respect them — no matter how incoherent their articulation might be.
So when an old man tapped me on the shoulder as I was shooting and told me to get out of the road, I did as he said. He had no outward marks of authority, mind you: he was dressed in a torn t-shirt and what teeth he had left were brown stumps. My impulse was to challenge him. Then I remembered that rule three did not permit me to ask questions — only to do as I was told.
“Parade’s coming through,” he told me.
I didn’t believe him. Fourth of July had been a week ago. It was humid on the street — no weather to march about in.
Back on my folding bike and low to the road, I wondered where to go next. To the right was territory I’d already covered on prior visits. To the left was tourist area: the only Baltimore neighborhood that held no allure for me. Straight ahead, well, here was a part of the city that I’d never investigated before. Promising, too, with the sun on the dull white cornices of the row houses rising up the slope. A few had weathered wooden planks in the place of windows. They looked like closed eyelids. Three step stoops leading to boarded doors. No railings. I pedaled up the hill
As it turned out the old man was telling the truth. There were the blue backs of the police barricades, right in the intersections parallel to the road on which I was. Crossing might be difficult. I decided to turn perpendicular to the parade route and explore a residential street.
Now I was truly in a part of the city I’d never seen, although I could still pinpoint where I was, as I had committed the map to memory. In a sense I was gathering information, filling in the empty spaces with color and shape as I rode by. What makes Baltimore treacherous, if I may say so, is that troubled areas are often right next to neighborhoods that are one hundred per cent safe, or close enough to it. Examine, for instance, this beautifully restored two-storey building, painted pink and adorned with a pointed roof, right next to a dilapidated hovel with its mailbox hanging askew. Any bike ride into any region of town could, in theory, be a flirtation with danger. There is a certain thrill that goes along with a trip into risky streets; a low-level, subsonic hum of apprehension that tickles the base of the spine. That is not to say that I was frightened. I was simply alert — and an alert photographer gets good pictures.
“That’s my bike! That’s my bike!”
I fail to understand why children shout this at people on bicycles but I assume it is a reference to one of their movies or songs. It is disconcerting to hear. It is not their bike. They’d opened a hydrant even though it wasn’t all that hot. Nobody splashed in it. This is, as you know, a thoughtless thing to do: an open hydrant lowers water pressure for the entire block and makes it difficult for firefighters in case of fire. One older child stood at the mouth of the open hydrant and directed the water with his hands. He was practiced at the art. I picked up my speed on the bicycle. As I passed the hydrant I rather expected to be showered, but instead they shouted at me without purpose. There were so many different voices that it was impossible to make out any words, which was surely for the best, since the tone spoke volumes.
By now I was beginning to feel unwelcome in this neighborhood. The block I was on was run-down. Many of the houses had been boarded up, brick frontage crumbled away, there was litter along the curb and a surveillance camera on a high pole at the intersection. A peeling billboard in the middle of a windowless brick wall read:
For a moment I felt it might be advisable to return to roads I knew better. But then I saw something irresistible, handsome in its desolation, right across the street. A row house lay broken and shorn of its distinguishing marks. Even the color of the brick had faded to a baby aspirin shade. The windows had been replaced by wooden planks, but the red front door still hung on its hinges atop the three step concrete stoop. The lower right panel of the door had been knocked out, and the aperture glowed orange with a private light. The hole was like an aperture to an interior sun. For an amazed second I wondered if the house was on fire. I took out my camera and searched for an approach.
What I soon realized was that there was no good way to capture the luminous quality of the door from the sidewalk, or from the road, or even from the small lot in front of the row house. The colors looked dull and unremarkable from a distance. Worse, as I fussed with the camera, the intensity of the light behind the door seemed to be dimming — as if someone was pulling a fader. Yes, I was sure of it. In order to get the shot, I would have to make an exception to rule number two.
Tentatively I tiptoed up to the stoop and its peeling white paint. Then I leaned my bicycle against the wall of the abandoned building and put my foot on the first step. After that, the next two steps gave me no qualms. I poked the long lens of the Nikon through the hole in the door, looked through the camera, and was amazed by what I saw.
Once a small family house, it was now an entropic playground. The interior had been stripped and gutted. Great chunks of concrete and plaster were missing from the walls, and stones and other detritus were scattered across the linoleum of what used to be a kitchen. The appliances had been yanked out of the room, roughly, it seemed, because sprays of torn wires like silver bouquets stuck out at radical angles. A duct had broken loose from its moorings in the ceiling and slumped toward the floor, shrouded in rags of insulation and fiberglas. Bones of a staircase, its carpeting and wooden steps pried loose, twisted toward a bare landing.
Despite the boarded windows, all this I could apprehend because of a peculiar alignment. The July sun shone through a tight slit in the roof and another in the first floor ceiling. Rays fell on a pool of water in the middle of the kitchen and tickled the shards of glass from broken bottles and bulbs. The whole interior was bathed in soft, warm, amber light; refracted light, light as it came through the condensation on the windows of a car at night. It felt holy. By what chance had I arrived here at this strange moment of convergence?
I knew I was duty bound to capture the scene. But suddenly I was overcome by panic. There I was, kneeling on a stoop with my face in a hole and my rear end exposed to the street. The sunlit room in the abandoned house occupied my entire field of vision; who knew what was going on behind me? Worse yet, in my haste to get the shot, I hadn’t folded and locked my bicycle. A passerby could jump in the saddle and ride off and I would be left in a strange area of Baltimore with no easy conveyance back to any part of town where I felt comfortable.
Hurriedly I withdrew from the hole, loosened the screws on the swinging parts of the bicycle, and compacted it into a cube. The sun had stiffened the joints and it did not fold with ease; the back tyre didn’t catch on the crossbar until my fifth frantic attempt. There were no parking signs or racks anywhere in sight. I dragged the folded bike over to a cyclone fence ringing a brick-filled lot and fastened it to one of the metal poles. By the time I returned to the door and the hole, the sun had moved.
The light was gone. I’d missed my chance. Dejected, I put the camera down. Then I sat on the concrete stoop and let my legs dangle off the edge. The children had forgotten about the hydrant, still spewing water by the side of the road, and were chasing each other around in aimless circles. An opportunity to chronicle something truly special — something that testified to the strange majesty of old buildings that had fallen into disuse — had slipped through my fingers. My trip was going bust.
Well, at the very least, I could still get that crab cake. My mouth watered and my belly grumbled as I thought about those translucent hunks of glistening meat, fresh from the shell, assembled into a mound by an expert fishmonger. Broiled, never fried, that was the way to do it, with golden brown crispy bits at the very edges and the whole thing pliant and tender and aching for the fork.
Hopping on the bike, I pedaled back toward the intersection. Water from the hydrant splashed on the hard macadam and sluiced muck into the sewers. Kids ran in circles, laughing and swearing. I swerved onto the sidewalk to avoid the chaos in the street.
It is never optimal to take a bicycle anywhere but the road but I felt I had no choice. I threaded around the running children and bounced over cracks and bumps on the flagstones. One fat child stopped beside me. His head, I recall, was a perfect sphere and his expression was one of absolute malice. Without speaking a word, the child balled a fist and swung it at me. He struck me in the upper chest — not too painfully, but hard enough to make a reverberation through the day. Before I had any time to react, I had streaked past him and had rejoined the road at the intersection.
All at once I was in the midst of the parade. No floats but bands of dancers, dressed in long blue and orange skirts and twirling in good synchronicity. Colored confetti, sparkling in the sunlight, floated down from above the ninety nine cent stores and the fried fish shacks. Behind me a team of percussionists beat out a rhythm on steel drums suspended around their necks. It was a Caribbean day parade, I realized, a celebration of Baltimore’s Caribbean community. And this helped me overcome my bewilderment, and the rush of events, small but feral events that had pounced on me and pinned me, because I, too, am of Caribbean heritage: my whole family is Bajan. There I stood at the side of the road, bike partially folded, watching the dancing girls shout and twirl, and wondering if a child had really hit me — and if so, how I ought to feel about that, and what I might have done to deserve it.
I have never shown my pictures to anyone. Thousands upon thousands of these images of city buildings remain unseen, even by me. Forever I feel that I am about to strike upon the proper context to introduce them to the world, or the world to them,, but nothing seems quite appropriate. In the back of my mind, I suppose I envision that there must be some sort of exhibition, silly as that might seem to you. But of course exhibitions do not simply happen. One must campaign for them. Many photographers go all their lives without ever once receiving an exhibition. Probably many more than we realize, since an artist without an outlet has no chance to inscribe his vision on the minds of others. He is simply forgotten, and ploughed under.
Once I mentioned my project to Mr. Phipps, who preceded me as the caretaker at the consulate. He looked at me blankly.
“Well Phil, it does seem like a strange way to occupy your time. In places you couldn’t pay me to go. But I suppose we all do need a hobby.”
However I was not thinking about photographs as I pedaled past the monuments and row houses of Mount Vernon toward the Market — not even the magnificent shot I’d missed. I was thinking of the boy who had punched me. It didn’t seem real. In fact my memory of the event was choppy, and ran out of rhythm with the rest of my recollections of that neighborhood. He’d appeared out of a circle of children not adequately individuated, stepped angrily into my path, and then I’d whisked by him and into a rush of other faces. It was as if a single frame had been spliced into my story from an unrelated film.
Even so, I felt I had to interrogate my response, or lack of one. Why had I not stopped the bike and confronted him? I hadn’t even shouted. He could have knocked me from my seat and on to the curb. Assault is never permissible, no matter how young and ignorant the assailant. Perhaps he intended to grow up into a regular bully, and I did not see the need to step between him and the neighborhood he intended to terrorize. Maybe I felt that, given his age, the punch was insignificant, and it was only later that I truly felt its impact. Maybe I was embarrassed to be on the sidewalk, where bicycles are not permitted. Or maybe I was afraid.
From the alley with the nail salon and the liquor store I could see the red awning and the tall plate glass windows of the Market. Behind those doors were the world’s best, most succulent crab cakes; huge creamy oysters, too. Soon I’d stand at the counter and slurp them down. At first I believed that many others had the same idea and were queuing up outside the restaurant, which would have been altogether reasonable given the quality of the fish. As I rode closer I realized that there was a commotion on the sidewalk outside the Market entrance.
A large crowd had congregated by the doors. Several police cars parked along the curb. Three officers had a man pinned on the ground. His arms were spread-eagled and palms pressed against the concrete; his face partially turned, his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth. He appeared to be intoxicated but I could not say for sure. Some of the crowd jeered the policemen. Others encouraged them. Most were just curious onlookers.
“Hey does that bike fold?”
Accompanied by his friends, a boy broke away from the crowd. One eye still on the man on the ground, he followed me to the bike rack. Chattering, the children stepped between me and the wall. Yes, yes, I told them.
“It’s a Citizen folding bike. It folds into a compact cube.”
“Fold it up! Let me see.” A chorus echoed his request.
I had no choice but to oblige. I showed them how easy it was to twist the hinges open, and explained that the wheel had to be lifted just so to allow the mechanism to hook together properly. The children oohed. My demonstration of the collapsible handlebars made another hit.
As I slid the seat down and crimped the pedals into the body of the bike, I realized that I had drawn a small crowd of my own. The detectives were still the main attraction but my little sideshow drew interest as well. Some of them had tired of the inactive inebriate on the sidewalk and transferred their attention to me.
Yet it occurred to me that it would not be enough to fold the bike up: they also wanted to see it restored to its riding size. Bodies surrounded me, curious, gesturing. These were poor people, I thought; they’d never seen a bicycle fold, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. In reverse order I slid the seat up, erected the handlebars, parted the folding wheels, and rolled the bike back and forth to show that it was now ridable. The children cheered.
“It must not ride good though. The wheels are so puny.”
This was the first boy again — the spokesman. The expression on his face reminded me of one I had seen on my nephew, years ago, in Central Park, when I’d explained how the electric boats work, and he’d been ever so disappointed that he couldn’t jump on one without sinking it.
“Oh no. It rides as well as any bicycle with a larger wheel radius.”
“You’d be surprised.” I paused and looked down at him. “What’s your name?”
“Stevie, would you like to try it out? Take it for a quick spin and come right back?”
This would make him glad, I thought. It would make all of his friends grateful by extension. I helped him up on the seat and showed him the bell and the brakes. His feet looked tiny on the pedals as he kicked off.
Children scattered in his wake. Some melted back into the circle that surrounded the man still face down on the street. Where once he’d been restrained by three cops, now there were five. Stevie did not wave as he streaked to the curb. I watched the boy on the Citizen bike arrive at the intersection. Then I watched him reach the first traffic light, and then pass the alley and the nail salon. I saw him grow smaller and smaller, until he was a black speck receding against the cityscape. After that he disappeared into the day.
I waited for the boy’s return in the July sun, hot and direct, outside the tall plate glass windows — shiny enough to be great mirrors — of the Market, for ninety minutes. The crowd had dispersed: the police had pulled the man into the squad car and driven away. Rubberneckers followed the car with shouts of derision, or thumped on the trunk, or crossed the street, or entered the market to satisfy their hunger. The children had vanished. A From his wheelchair, a double amputee told me that I wasn’t about to see my bicycle again. Then he, too, grabbed his wheels and pushed off, leaving me alone in the city.
I feel the need to say that I will not blame Baltimore for what I lost. If it was a visitor’s tax, I paid heavily, but also, it seems in retrospect, willingly. I am presently saving up a percentage of my paycheck in order to buy a replacement Citizen. Once I get it I will not hesitate to return to the city and to my project. I wish only that Stevie, if that was his name, treats the bike he took from me with the respect that its quality warrants. I believe that he will. I don’t think he’ll junk it. He took it and rode it, and that, in my experience, is enough to forge a genuine relationship with it — one based on an understanding of its value. Surely a bond formed, and I trust that bond will last for years to come.