For some reason I carry a lot of gadgets with me. One of these is a digital camera, whose manual I have still not finished reading. One of these days I'll figure out what each button does, but for now, I at least knew how to operate the shutter.
I crept down the stairs and outside, and snatched the camera from my backpack. The yellow sodium lamps made my silver car glow, like a huge rotten banana. Night time made everything look weird.
The shadows of people were still out, walking at the distant ends of the street. I couldn't hear them. The "Donnie Darko" soundtrack was encapsulating me, from the headphones and the iPod in my old leather jacket. I had the camera over my neck, riding under my elbow. I'd stuffed the celphone into one pocket, thinking desparately of my friend. I would try to call her later, and several times more. Never any answer. It worried me.
Mostly I wandered around and took pictures. I'm fortunate because no one bothers me. I'm sturdy, and relatively tall, and I walk with a deliberate way. I'm not the stranger here - you are. I don't make nervous glances - you do, at me. I'm a freak with a camera at 3:00am.
I wandered into a school, pushing the fenced metal gate open with one finger. The playsets were cold, and slick under the blanket cover of fog piling in from the bay. The basketball court was empty, under the exploding lamps. I took it's picture, holding the shutter open on the wet lid of a garbage can for 17 seconds.
The occasional car would pass, but I got brave. I laid down in the street, for a picture looking up the road. The camera had to be on something flat, and I tried not to even breathe while my fingers held the button down. Even a tiny shift would spoil the picture.
When I laid down to get the shot of a tree, a crusty punk came tromping past. I heard him through the headphones, shouting, "Oh, that's gonna be a hella good picture, man. Hella good."
"Yep. If I can hold the shutter steady."
"Right on." He kept tromping, and crossed the street.
After a few tries, I got something that I could tweak later in Photoshop.
At the end of the block, on College Avenue, the storefronts began. The 7-11 was selling donuts, but they had no milk. I leaned on a lightpost, and got a picture of the shop across the street. Note the "No War In Iraq" poster, and the slogan on the paper box, "Green Up Oakland". Those light spokes in the lower corner are from the tail end of a car.
It's almost Halloween here. I don't know why the bride has a rubber chicken in her skull. Some tradition I haven't heard of. Dia De Los Muertos colliding with a joke shop. All I know is, my friend Ken would love it.
I turned right, on Ashby Avenue. A man rolled up next to me in a truck, and started pulling bundles of newspapers out the back, and throwing them down on the curb. Grey jacket, grey beard. He waved. I nodded back. Nearby, two men talked over a miniature iron coffee table. Somehow, they looked gay. I don't know exactly how. Behind them and a large glass window, another man was stacking up vast plates of fresh donuts. The sign said, 'CLOSED', however.
I walked for a long time. "Donnie Darko" segued into the music-and-effects track for "The Fellowship Of The Ring". Every now and then, some word of dialogue bounced off the rear surround channel, emerging from the brood of effects to pierce my ears. "My precciiouussss".
At Telegraph, I turned right again. I passed a fat woman wearing a Raiders jacket, with bare legs, staring out from a bus stop bench. I passed two people in sleeping gear, side by side in a garden. I passed a confused old man poring over a shopping cart filled with his personal garbage. I didn't feel like stopping long enough for a picture.
I tried the phone in my pocket, slipping the earpiece in so the music didn't even stop. No answer. How fortunate I was, with this music, this phone. This big digital camera clonking off me. For some reason I had no fear. Discomfort sometimes, but no fear. This was life, around me. No one knew who I was, no one wanted to interfere. This was freedom.
I pass ed into the section of Telegraph that I knew. More people emerged, leaning on each other, smiling. College kids on a walk. No stores were open at 3:00am, so all they had were each other. Everything was tagged there, except for some walls, which were painted with a kind of super-elastic resin. Paint just wiped off it, and chalk wouldn't write. You could tell it was only there to beat the taggers because it ended nine feet up, in a straight line. Bare brick continued after that.
While taking a picture, a man with a guitar noticed me. My hands were warm from my walk, but this man was sweating. He had two or three layers of everything on. A beat up wax soda cup was pinned to his guitar strap.
"Feel like a small donation?" he said, hopefully. "I make noise!" He twanged the guitar.
"Well, to be perfectly honest, no." I turned, then stopped. "Wait, wait a minute." I clawed my wallet out of the leather jacket, and scooped a handful of change from the zipper compartment. Without looking at it, I threw the pile into his cup. "A picture is worth something. Stand right there a minute."
He stood at the street corner while I adjusted the camera, and took a shot. Then, he sidled up to me as I crossed the street, and said, "You know, a picture usually costs a dollar."
I laughed. "I think I put at least a dollar in your cup."
"Ah, good then, good." He stopped walking. "So do I get a copy of the picture?"
I turned back to face him, and said, half joking, "Sure, have you got an email address?"
"Tunes'R'Us at Yahoo Dot Com. That's T, U, N, E, Z... R, U, S... at Yahoo Dot Com." He strummed the guitar.
All I could do was smile, and give him the thumbs-up. email@example.com. I'd have to remember that.
I passed the man in the truck, unloading papers onto the sidewalk, for a second time. "Hey", he said. I nodded.
I turned left, down Dwight Avenue, making for Shattuck. Down there was a diner, if I was remembering this area correctly. I passed more people sleeping in bushes, over fences, or with their backs on stone walls. Once you get to this kind of life, how do you get out? An email address is a start, I suppose. You can get correspondence, and you don't need to rent a PO Box or own property for it. Just some computer time in the library will do.
On the way I passed a church. This is what you get when you photograph a church at night, with the shutter open for 19 seconds.
Shattuck was a long way off. Almost a mile, I think. Hard to miss, though, because it was lit up like a holiday steam boat. Only a few people around, most of them nomads. A man unloaded a truck full of milk crates into the front door of a restaurant, while down the street, an old woman slept sitting up, her back curved so severely that her head seemed like it was growing from her chest. To my right, a man in worn denimn layers slept standing upright, with his face pressing into the corner of two shop windows.
Same old Halloween shops. Same jokes, different year. Some of the people that walk by here tomorrow will stride in and buy these things. I kept walking, and felt like I was seeing every night rolled into this one. Every day rolled into the coming one. The people drift in, and they flush out, like fish in a wave. The nomads have been beached. They wander here, slowly dying.
Sure, I think about how lucky I am sometimes. Most of the time I think about how unfortunate other people are. My urge to help and reach out is counterwoven with my perception of them as living things.
What could I say, that they would remember, and be changed by? What could make them get up, head to the UC Berkeley fountain, wash off, fill out a rental form, and go skipping off to look for employment?
Seems like a safer bet, foraging in the dumpster.
I don't know what to say, or how to fix it, or even what needs fixing. If these people had friends or loving relatives, they wouldn't be here. With so many people on earth to contend with and examine, why would I even write this?
This city breathes with articulated suffering. Casualties of disease and politics roam the streets, decorating them, and the UC students come strolling around to witness it, and write papers. A lot of good comes from it all, I think.
I passed by a gas station, and the grey-bearded man was putting fuel in his truck. The papers in the back were all gone. This was the third time. He looked at me very suspiciously, an odd guy festooned with gadgets, staring back. I waved. He got in his truck and vroomed up the street I was crossing to.
The walk back to my Aunt's house was very long. My pelvis ached. I walked up the steps to the door just as Frodo and Sam were walking over the horizon in my headphones. The credits music began.
Here I was in a warm house, stripping off my jacket. Just walked right in. Slice this moment out, and put it next to the one with the guitar player in it. Or the fat woman, staring half naked from her bus stop bench. It didn't even seem like the same day to me, let alone the same city. Just a few blocks down.
Something bothered me. I couldn't get my head around it. I was worried about my friend, too.
I sat down in a creaky wooden chair, and scratched the dog who wandered up, her toenails clacking on the hardwood floor. I checked my email, and found nothing.