Monday, February 21, 2011

The View From High Atop


I drove down to my favorite coffee shop this morning in our new car, a Subaru Forester, wondering if I'd get into a wreck but simultaneously thinking that a new car is supposed to give one a sense of joy, not worry, and passed a number of commuters on motorscooters, who appeared to be as joyful and satisfied of their transportation choice as I am of mine.

I used to own a motorscooter, a little 49cc Italjet brand twist-and-go two-stroke, with which I used to commute 30 miles round trip per day. I weighed about 200 pounds, and the scooter, it had only enough horsepower (ponypower?) to get me up to 53 mph on a level road. Uphill, it was slower. So I learned, from having ridden bicycles around town for years, to use side streets and other slower-speed-limit avenues as a means of avoiding the inevitable conflicts that would arise from a too-slow-accelerating bike in fast-accelerating-SUV traffic. On a bike, there are no fender-bender accidents, only trips to the hospital or mortuary.

I would leave the house at 6am, still dark and cold even in the summer, and drive miles across town on a slower feeder street that's named Comanche Road in my part of town, but becomes known as Griegos Road when it winds its way through the historic Hispanic neighborhoods of Albuquerque's north valley. I'd pass a city park at about the same time every morning, where the same man would be walking his dog. Our two schedules were so finely in phase that he'd be rounding the edge of the park at the same time that I'd be passing by, so I got in the habit of beeping my little tinny-sounding scooter horn every morning, and he'd wave back in response, like two ships passing in the night, signaling each other in semaphore. I wondered, years later, if he ever made mention of the guy on the scooter in the dark early morning hours that would ride by and honk.

I would turn north onto 4th street, what used to be the original Route 66 before the realignment of the 1930s, when the historic highway made a lengthy detour from Santa Rosa, New Mexico north to Santa Fe, and then south, along the Rio Grande valley and its various Pueblo villages, to Albuquerque, before the highway was later extended directly through the Tijeras Canyon pass between the Sandia and Manzano mountains, onto Albuquerque's Central Avenue.

4th Street still has vestigial remnants from its days as a major highway through town, bead-like threads of old decrepit motels and shops that are far removed from their former glory, something that perhaps only urban archaeologists would make note of. There's a road that runs parallel to 4th Street several block east, and which was once populated by a variety of businesses known colloquially as "massage parlors," the Red Light District, which many newcomers to town would wonder about, why were they so concentrated in that one part of town. I'd have to give them the backstory of 4th Street being the original Route 66 through town, and how various businesses sprang up in the immediate vicinity to service the weary traveler's needs. But that era is so long passed that 4th Street has pretty much overcome its era of general seediness, retiring into the more genteel persona of cute north-valley history. Nowadays the seediness belongs to the Central Avenue corridor, a remnant of the Route 66 realignment that it has never fully recovered from, the area around east Central once known as The Combat Zone now renamed, in all of its political correctness, as The International District.

After commuting miles north on 4th Street in the early morning dark, I'd turn west onto Alameda Road, from which I'd cross the Rio Grande on the Alameda bridge, and then slowly crawl up the steep hill into the neighboring town of Rio Rancho, where my 12-hour shift would begin. At night I'd retrace my route, the little two-stroke engine spewing a steady cloud of burnt hydrocarbons into the night air, the bike's little under-powered headlight offering little more than solace at the thought of a well-illuminated roadway. Sometimes it'd be hard to start, sitting out in the cold of the parking lot at work all day, and I'd have to manually choke the carb and kick start it to life, preserving the scarce battery voltage for the spark plug.

A few years later I thought I needed a faster bike, a real motorcycle with a powerful 4-stroke engine and good headlights, and we decided that we had no more room for the little scooter in our lives. Now, I regret that decision, as I drive through morning traffic in my new car, slowing down for the school zones, admiring the brave scooter jockeys, wrapped in their warm garb, their layered jackets and scarves and gloves, their little bikes adorned with plastic crates behind the back seat for storage, or cloth bags hanging from storage hooks between their legs.

I park in the alley behind the coffee shop, to avoid having to pay for parking, and wondering which, if any, University student's beater car will ding my new car's doors, then immediately thinking about how a new car suddenly transforms a person into a snob, knowing that soon the new-car smell will be gone and the grunge and dust of life will obscure that new-car shine.

After standing in line and finishing my breakfast order, I'm eating and drinking and conversing with a guy seated at a tiny table against the wall, who's head is leaning against a bulletin board full of local notices for things like artist openings and poetry slams and local bands with names like "Then Eats Them," and alternative therapists and political causes so obscure as to be found nowhere else but in the University district. We're talking about old computer technology, the guy and I, a conversation that got started when he noticed the Neo that I was typing on; he thought it was some text-only keyboard used to troubleshoot old mainframe computers. Then we started talking about other technologies, in the same way that aged war veterans talk about their younger days, the main difference being that true war veterans never talk about the battles they were in, only about the good memories, wherein we started in on radio broadcasting, and he told me about his mother, who could pull in Mexican Radio broadcasts on her dental fillings, and also his Uncle, who could pull in Mexican Radio on his bed frame, all the way from San Jose, California. I tried to impress him with my theory that the corroded interface between metallic mercury amalgam fillings and jawbone created a diode-like semiconductor junction that was able to demodulate AM radio signals. I'm not sure he bought it, but he left a few minutes later after we exchanged farewells. It's a small world.

Now, several hours later, I've driven across town, then north on the interstate to the town of Bernalillo (Burn-uh-lee-oh), where I've exited, taken State Highway 550 west, then onto the Santa Ana Pueblo and out a crazed, sun-grayed blacktop road that ends at the Jemez Dam Overlook. I've taken my digital camera, but also a tripod, backpack with light meter and calculator, and two 8"x10" pinhole box cameras, each loaded with a single sheet of black and white photo paper.

This is faith-based photography in all of its glory. Whereas the modern digital photographer can immediately review one's images on-screen (an activity affectionately called "chimping"), and whereas the early photographers of the 19th century would immediately develop their wet-plate collodion images directly on-site, and could tell in a few minutes whether their efforts were rewarded with success or failure, the modern-day photographic Luddite, armed with pinhole camera loaded with some esoteric medium such as paper negatives, doesn't have the pleasure of knowing success or failure until many hours and miles have passed, and one is back home in one's darkroom, watching the (hoped for) image come up in the developer tray.

One of these day, I'm going to take my portable darkroom box out with me, just barely large enough to process 4"x5" negatives, and give it a go with on-site processing, like some itinerant 19th century photographer, teleported into the future but unable to let go completely of the past.

The sun is alternately blazingly bright and dimmed to soft shadows and an almost cold wind as a high, thin scud of clouds slowly crawls eastward, and I decide that it's time to hit the road and head home.

Hours later, I'm back home, secluded inside my garage-based darkroom under dim, red lighting, watching the paper negative images come up in the developer tray, excited that, once again, the force of photons upon silver molecules has resulted in an image visible and yet mysteriously ephemeral, a document of an interaction purposefully orchestrated inside the Mad Scientist's cloud chamber laboratory of paper and cardboard.

Epilog: This fascination our species has with technology interests me in the sense that, as a people, we possess both the ability to create and also to cogitate upon that which we have created. Transportation, communication, image-making -- we seem to be surrounded by the work of our hands and brains, all the more so with the recent advent of wireless, nonstop interconnectivity, so much so that it becomes too easy to lose our connection with the natural world. Standing up on that wind-blown perch at Jemez Dam Overlook, I was reminded once again about the power of silence, of stilling, at least for a few moments, the incessant external distractions and internal thinking processes, and just observing, quietly, the natural world that we live within. These humble black and white pinhole camera images remind me of that outer world, seemingly eternal and never changing yet in actuality constantly in flux, and how these inner and outer worlds are in desperate need of being reunified as one.

(Posted via AlphaSmart Neo)

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~Joe

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