Monday, August 29, 2011

Riding the Mother Road

It was the late 1960s, a warm summer's night, we (myself, two brothers, Dad and Harry, our step-sister's husband) had just left the dirt-track super-modified races, at the old track that's now long gone, but was once located on Eubank south of Central Avenue, in Albuquerque, and we headed up east Central, the old Route 66, toward the Western Skies hotel and night club, once a notable landmark and venue that hosted many stars and musicians in its day. Glenn Campbell, for instance, had his start, with his uncle Dick Bills, at the Western Skies, years earlier.

Interstate 40 had just been completed at this time, offering an alternative route through town that bypassed Route 66, which had already begun its long, slow economic demise.

We stopped at the Western Skies but didn't go in, instead lamenting its already notable decline from its glory years in the 1950s, the parking lot near empty. Harry turned around the convertible Plymouth Roadrunner and, with a twinkle in his eye, asked us if we'd ever been over 100 miles per hour.

We hadn't, of course. I was probably all of ten years old, if that.

And so, with a nod of Dad's approval, Harry mashed the throttle and that big Mopar hemi engine roared to life. The cool night air suddenly grew to hurricane strength, our eyes squinting in the gale, and flashing neon motel signs blurred by, dream-like. It lasted for all but a few seconds, before Harry had to slow down for the light at Eubank, but we'd had our once-in-a-lifetime thrill, on the Mother Road.

In the intervening years, it seems as if those brightly-lit neon signs of a bygone era have raced passed our culture's notice in a blur every bit as reminiscent of that late-night joyride from long ago, a slow-motion journey of sadness whose signposts are marked by evidence of political shortsightedness, greed and the inevitable consequences of economic change. Things grow, things change, things die; that's life.

I've written before, within these pages, of Route 66's history and heritage in Albuquerque, and some direct connections to my family's story, upon which we will not linger further. Yet there remains this fact: history is constantly being written anew. Today is tomorrow's past, what happens right this second is history to some future perspective.

And so, it is with these thoughts in mind that I rode my motorcycle down Central Avenue this morning, in the bright, clear morning light that's so photogenic, armed with Fuji Instax 210 camera to record, on my way to breakfast, some fleeting glimpses of the remnants from a former era.

I've put together this little kit for the Fuji camera. The camera, it's an ungainly looking contraption, over-sized, rounded corners, like some radiation-enhanced plastic toy. I carry it in an army-green canvas messenger bag, along with a spare pack of film (it's about 80 cents per shot if purchased in batches of 100 via the Global Interconnected Data Network), along with a thin, flexible plastic file card storage box, just big enough to hold the 16:9 wide-screen prints. The camera, it spews out the exposed film from a slot in the top. I immediately stow the still-developing print inside the little box to protect the film from fingerprints, dirt and sunlight, which permits a bit more color saturation to the finished image.

I found the best way to carry the camera from the motorcycle to pursue a picture was sans messenger bag, with the film storage box in my other hand. Click, whirr, then grab the print by the corner with my mouth as it's spewed from the top slot, letting the camera dangle on its wrist strap while I quickly slip the print into the little storage box.

And so, I sit here in Winning Coffee at the long, wooden table (my usual haunt), while across the room Bradley is setting up his mobile bookstore at the counter by the coffee roaster, and my blue plastic storage box on the table next to my notebook, it's carrying a load of about a dozen images so far, of my ventures out and about this morning.
Breakfast done, I headed east on Central, into the brightness, sunglasses donned. There's an area just east of Nob Hill that's laced with numerous antique and thrift shops, some just indoor flea markets, others sporting fancier fare that's well out of my price range. I ventured into one of the mid-range places, not high-end but neither flea market discards. I came away with an aluminum clipboard and antique turquoise-colored desk fan (which I picked up later, in my car). What I didn't purchase were several manual typewriters (a Smith Corona and a portable of German make), mainly due to their condition; neither did I walk away with a WWI-era, French-made binocular, nor one of several French plate cameras from the 19th century (which sorely vexed me, the temptation being to recondition or replace the bellows and use them for studio work with paper negatives). My office, we've just managed to complete its remodel and it doesn't need the continual accumulation of More Stuff.

Such is life, the continual accumulation of its artifacts, both physical and cerebral. The memories, I take pleasure in collecting them, photograph-like, as they are the raw stuff of stories, legends and lore yet to be, as I ride into the sunlight on the Mother Road, through the geography of my past, into an expectant future.

(Penned in composition book, images via Fuji Instax Wide 210 instant film camera)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sunday Night at the Frontier

Sunday night, warm and (relatively) humid for these parts (New Mexico's high desert), a smattering of high clouds illuminated by the lights of Albuquerque, far below. I'd finished running a last-minute family errand, across town, and was headed home; but first, a bite to eat.

Like many smaller cities, Albuquerque pretty much rolls up the sidewalks at sundown, especially on a Sunday night, a hold-over from a time of more traditional temperance, perhaps. I can remember the time, as a young lad, when liquor sales were first permitted on Sundays, back in the early 1970s. It was a shocking controversy at the time, reinforcing the notion that, along with race-riots and anti-war protests, the place had pretty much gone to hell in a hand basket.

But, this is 2011 and times, they are a bit more at ease, or so it would seem. Still, getting a good meal at ten at night on a Sunday, other than a drive-thru burger joint or a Denny's, is a bit of a challenge. Fortunately for me, I was driving up Central Avenue, toward the University District, and knew of just the spot: the Frontier Restaurant.

It stands as a landmark, perhaps the most legendary eatery in the entire state. Not due to its fine dining (the food, it's good but not gourmet good), or fancy atmosphere (you stand in line to order, then wait to pick up your tray at the counter when your number is flashed on the L.E.D. sign), or upper-crust clientele (a hodge-podge of students, street people, chess players, bohemians and assorted after-hours bar-crowd riff-raff), it's hard to pin down just exactly what sort of magical ingredients go into this extraordinarily unique eatery, disguised under a bright yellow, barn-shaped roof, across Central from the main entrance to U.N.M., but unique it is, uniquely ordinary.

I drove up Central, turned right onto Cornell, then made an immediate left into the narrow parking lot behind the building, adorned with painted decor, fresco-like, lending the place a sort of faux-European atmosphere. A miniature LPG-powered forklift was parked adjacent to the loading dock, next to a grease bin. In front of the rear entrance a cluster of young twenty-somethings mingled and chatted. Walking toward the entrance, I stopped momentarily, brought camera to face and snapped a pic, then strode through the motorized sliding glass entryway with a put-on attitude of the veteran street photographer that I'm not, secretly surprised that no one raised a stink. Perhaps a more enlightened crowd?

Inside, the Frontier can be a bit disorienting to the newcomer. The main room and kitchen occupy the west end of what was once a long strip of shops, which have now been joined by a long hallway along the front of the building into a series of dining rooms, each stuffed with booths and tables, and whose walls are cluttered with paintings of a mostly western motif, that can seem endless on a busy day.

I made my way down the hall to the main room, past a goth-like young lady seated at a table by the window, absorbed in a paperback, and stood for a minute or two in a short line. Even at ten at night on a Sunday there's a wait at the Frontier. I ordered the beef enchiladas smothered with green chile stew, and a fresh, just-made tortilla. I stood for several minutes, discretely snapping pics, while waiting for number 85 to be displayed. Years earlier, they would incessantly announce each order over an annoying loud-speaker until it was picked up. Tonite, the red numbers, they just silently flash on and off at the screen hanging from the ceiling above the pick-up counter like some abstract culinary mathematics. Finally, my order was ready and I sauntered up the ramp into one of the adjoining dining rooms, tray in hand, camera dangling from wrist via its Gordy strap.

I sat down at a booth in the John Wayne Room. At a table in the middle of the room, between the booths that line both side walls, sat several fellas playing chess with such intensity that they hardly noticed when I snapped several pics with an obvious lack of caution, nor did they even flinch when, a few moments later, the busboy dropped a metal dust pan onto the hard floor with a loud clang. Nor did they hesitate for even a second from their game to look up, across the room, to gaze with well-needed inspiration into the ruddy face of The Duke himself, silently overseeing the goings-on in this late-night eatery in the American southwest, like the Crucified Savior's visage silently gazing down upon a roomful of parishioners, celebrating Holy Mass.

Behind me, a booth-full of young 'uns was giving advice to a desperate young lady whose world was absolutely falling apart because "Josh, he knows that I know that he knows that I know. You know?"

Outside, through the rear sliding glass door, I could clearly see the flood-lit sign on the building opposite that proclaimed "One Way."

The Frontier, it's been featured in movies and on T.V. It's known for its legendary cinnamon rolls, fresh-squeezed orange juice and breakfast anytime, day or night. It used to be open 24-7, but now closes between 1 and 5 A.M. due to recent problems after the downtown bars close, their rowdy patrons on the prowl, hungry for a late-night meal. People, they come here to eat and talk, read or study, fellowship or play chess. Twenty-some years ago we'd meet here for Tuesday morning bible study.

My dinner, it was great, just like I knew it would be. The ground beef enchilada filling was tangy and spicy, the rice light and fluffy, the green chile stew marvelously hot and sweet, and the just-made flour tortilla a light, chewy, flour-dusted wonder that was everything I hoped it would be when, minutes earlier, I watched a cook line up fresh little dough balls, from a baker's tray, into the conveyor that fed them, through the rolling machine, directly into and through the glass-walled oven and out the other side, chrysalis-like in their transformation from doughy, larvae-like spheres to flat, hot, butterfly-like yumminess.

Minutes later I was driving the darkened streets toward home, windows down, the blues playing on the radio, a cool evening's breeze providing solace. I had just experienced Sunday night at the Frontier.

(Written via Lamy Safari fountain pen using Parker Quink blue/black ink into composition book. Photos via Lumix G1, 20mm-f/1.7 lens at ISO800)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Doing Due Diligence

I suppose it's like an addiction, an urge one can't quite control, like when you seem to have gained the upper hand, success seems but at hand, and BAM! you fall back seemingly at the weakest moment, when your guard is down, least expecting it. Of course, I'm talking about something most everyone can relate to, that being walking (innocently enough) into your neighborhood craft store (Hobby Lobby in this case) and ambling by the craft boxes, stopping and examining them in closer detail, then finally deciding one of them might work just fine as a pinhole box camera.

Yes, that's right. Another pinhole box camera. I need another camera (pinhole or otherwise) like Carter needs pills, like I need another hole in my head (hey - neat idea for a pinhole camera ... oh, never mind), like a junkie needs another dirty needle. A bit off-color imagery, that, but you get the drift. I am, after all, catching up with the "Breaking Bad" series on Netflix.

Just the other day I found myself, innocently enough, in a thrift shop (innocently enough, like an addict innocently enough shows up at the local shooting gallery "just by chance," innocently enough like an alcoholic "just happens" to wander into the corner tavern), wandering the aisles overflowing with the residue of other's discards. I made a determined effort not to look too hard for any hard cases that might contain typewriters (lucky for me, none were to be found) but I did "just happen" to wander over to a metal shelf full of crappy old plastic point-and-shoot cameras. Ten minutes later I was standing in the checkout line with an Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom camera, silver in color, mint condition (I expected there to be scratches and other blemishes like most of the other cameras in the bin, but this one was pristine, inside and out, including the light seals around the film door). And so I came home from my trip to Hobby Lobby and the thrift store with the fixin's for another pinhole camera, and also another film point-and-shoot.

We've been consolidating my "junk" into one master office, my wife and I have, such that the rest of the house won't look as much like a thrift store or half-way-house for vagrant photographers. And, in order for the office to not resemble too closely a tornado-struck flea market, we have to, in the parlance of those more skilled at getting rid of stuff than I (code-word for "not pack rats"), pare down, simplify, create order from disorder. It's like cutting off part of your arm, this getting rid of stuff.

Just last night, as my wife and I were putting the finishing touches on the office, she recommended that I find some cute little storage bins for the bookcase, within which to put my small doodads and whatnots taking up space, and that I make sure there were "accents" that matched the room's paint job. Whatever those are.

Of course, a good place to look for "accented" designer storage boxes is at places like Hobby Lobby. So you can immediately see the problem here, can't you? And so the cycle continues.

I have a friend who's going through a rough time. His business failed, his house and car foreclosed and repossessed, his family having, for the most part, abandoned him. And tomorrow he's set to lose a lifetime of material possessions when his storage building, of which he's months behind on rent, goes up for auction. He's going to lose a life's-worth of collecting material possessions, like high-end kitchen ware and rooms full of furnishings.

As heartbreaking of a loss that losing a lifetime of stuff can be, he also is set to lose things harder to replace. Albums of family photos; memorabilia from his father's military service; his own birth certificate and social security card (what's all this talk about identity theft in the news? In this case the theft is court-mandated!) And file drawers of client records from a failed mortgage real estate business that he's required, by federal law, to maintain for seven years. All of it, gone.

Our stuff, we hang onto it like an appendage, a vestigial organ we've somehow grafted onto our bodies in some half-failed mad scientist's experiment. As mobile of a society as we claim to be, most of us are hardly capable of conducting a freewheeling migratory lifestyle, if for no other reason than our stuff, our house and our jobs.

Back to the pinhole camera-making fetish, I wonder if older cultures observed the same phenomenon, as if there could have been a fellow who was totally nuts about making flint spear points, for instance, like he just sat there, next to a pile of shards, chipping away at rocks all day. Perhaps he was an early entrepreneur of sorts, the proto-defense contractor of his day. Would he wander around, spy a certain shaped rock on the ground and think "hey, this would make a nice arrow head"? Would he haul another basket of rocks back to his cave or cliff dwelling, only to have his Significant Other eye him with disdain, giving him the silent treatment?

"All you ever do is come home with more rocks," she'd complain. "You should try coming back with some venison or elk, like the other men of the tribe." And off she'd saunter, to sulk for a while.

Of course, he'd feel guilt and remorse about his failed ambitions and uncontrollable urges. Until he decides to make better of it, go out and kill something to eat. Which requires, of course, a good spear point, perhaps the best one he's yet to fashion. And off he'd go, chipping away at his dreams once again.

I sort of wandered into the whole pinhole photography thing. It started back in the 1980s when I grew dissatisfied with color lab-processed slides and prints, deciding I needed more control over the process, and also having a real aesthetic liking for black and white imagery. So, I purposefully took a darkroom class and assembled the rudiments of a simple darkroom. But sometime afterwards I grew tired of the incessant desire for bigger, better, faster and sharper cameras and lenses (a seemingly endless quest that continues unabated to this day amongst the world of photo gear-heads), and somehow figured out that I wanted to make a pinhole camera. I can't remember to this day exactly how it started, but I do know that my very first camera was a cardboard craft box from - you guessed it - Hobby Lobby, the pinhole punctured in a piece of discarded aluminum pie tin.

While other people, who start out in pinhole photography with black and white photo paper negatives in simple one-shot box cameras, eventually mature into using medium and large format roll and sheet film cameras, I've decided to stick with photo paper negatives, having earned somewhat of a reputation for being the paper negative guru amongst the pinhole aficionados at the F295 pinhole photography discussion forum. This is all because I failed to graduate into something more sophisticated or capable, camera-wise, but instead purposefully embraced the simplistic limitations of the process. Still chipping away at spear points after all of these years, while in comparison, my peers are throwing around atom bombs.

This morning I heeded that little message affixed to my office bulletin board that says "morning light" and went out onto east Central Avenue with - you guessed it - a pinhole box camera loaded with paper negatives, and proceeded to make some exposures, capture a few photons, do due diligence to the memory of that early tool-making aesthete from long ago. Now my coffee is cold, my belly full, and I will saunter out of the Flying Star cafe into the summer's heat and sun to finish exposing the other three negatives, to feed that creative monster within, whose appetite refuses to be satiated. I guess that's a good thing.

(Written via AlphaSmart Neo)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Labyrinthine Mysteries

Sunday was my Grandson Noah's (The Line Writer's) 12th birthday. The kid is really growing up into a fine young man. Being as how he is, after all, The Line Writer, I gifted him with a Lamy Safari fountain pen and a high quality journal book, hand-tooled leather, bound by craftsmen at Renaissance Art in Santa Fe, complete with replaceable Arches paper in hand-torn, hand-stitched signatures.

If the quality of one's writing instruments is any indication of one's writerly skills, then Noah should be on a strong footing.

Of course, we know that it isn't the cost of one's tools that counts, but rather how best one adapts to using whatever tool one chooses. Sticking with it, that's the key to getting past the awkwardness of the mechanics of tool usage, making them transparent through built-up muscle memory, to the point that they simply disappear, and words magically appear on paper (or screen) shortly after having been formed in one's mind.

He came home with us to spend the night, Noah did, after his birthday party, where we spent the evening sitting in my newly remodeled office, writing and drawing.

Somehow the subject of mazes came up (another mystery), and this prompted me to dig into the closet, high up on the top shelf, where I unearthed a tattered maroon file folder, bulging at the seams. Inside were papers yellowed and musty - he took immediately to the timeless aroma of these old papers - and I leafed through piles of miscellaneous writings from early in my adult years, decades ago, when I spent much of my spare time as a high schooler and then U.S. Navy sailor with pen and paper, a mysterious inner thought-life revealed.

My "early works" these could be termed, although I'm certain they won't grace the pages of some future biographer's efforts. What they really represent are growing pains, documented in excruciating detail. But, along with numerous awkward attempts at stories short and somewhat humorous, there were found sheafs of papers written about one of my childhood fascinations, that being mazes.

Years ago I had collected numerous maze books, among which were those written by one Greg Bright, an Englishman, who not only designed mazes as graphic works of art but also put spade to sod and dug his own life-sized version in the heather of dear old England. He also worked on some rather novel theories of maze design, one of which ("one way valving") came to fascinate me. He left it up to his readers to determine how a maze could be designed to control the flow of traffic through the network.

I was probably Noah's age when this seemingly bizarre enchantment with mazes took hold. And so I began, over the next few years, to figure out how Greg Bright's cryptic reference to maze designs might be worked out in actual practice.

I pulled out page after page of scribblings and theories and schematic diagrams of "routing networks" (Bright's term), but these didn't interest Noah nearly as much as when I got to a stack of actual mazes, some completed but most in various stages of design, left unfinished for decades.

I told Noah the story of how I came to draw a complex maze of double and triple spirals onto an eight-foot-long scroll of notebook paper between eighth and ninth grades, which was eventually lost in one of many subsequent moves during my restless years of long ago.

We spent the next hour drawing our own mazes, and I took the time to show Noah my line mazes (you follow the inked line, rather than the space between lines) and also the 3D version of the line maze (where lines overlap, but only join at purposefully-drawn nodes), and also the schematic diagram of a 3D line maze that had no start or finish, neither any dead-ends, but instead represented a grid of pathways and nodal intersections. The edges of this schematic diagram wrapped around to the other sides of the grid, sphere-like, endless connections for the sheer joy of the hunt.

Noah, I found out, had already begun his own discovery of mazes, independent of my prompting, and showed me his own particular style of maze design. This surprised me: I had assumed that I had been one of only a few young lads to take interest in the convolutions and labyrinthine machinations of the maze designer. His independent interest makes me wonder how common of an interest this is among young boys, perhaps a common cultural artifact that's remained unseen and hidden amongst all of the other interests and distractions of childhood. Fittingly, the mystery remains.

Mazes, (and their unicursal cousins the labyrinth) I knew from my reading have fascinated civilizations for millenia. They hold a special spiritual implication to many cultures, whose depth of meaning have perhaps been lost to antiquity. Mazes perhaps represent the uncontrolled wildness of natural life bottled up in a tableau of finite dimension, symbolizing the trek, the journey, the quest, with its endless corridors and confusing decisions and promise of a destination, a reward, the goal like that proverbial gold at the end of the rainbow, symbolic of a future promised after-life.

We like the temporary confusion of the maze, if but for a season, before the temporary fascination wilts into the miasma of fear, the notion that we're really lost and aren't getting out of here anytime soon except by courage and perseverance. Words to live by in these challenging times. They are like models of real life, with its challenges and confusion, reminding us of the lessons learned by our parent's parent's parents, receding into antiquity, the mystery of life hidden within its cerebral-like convolutions.

The evening grew late, it became time for us to think about hitting the sack on this late summer's eve, before another year of school will soon begin. I bundled up the sheafs of musty papers into their tattered folder and replaced them to their resting place high up in the closet, to rest for another season of time in perpetual slumber, resting for some eventual future date when they will once again be taken down, opened up, leafed through, new mysteries of a past youth to be revealed anew.

Don't throw out those old papers, those dog-eared jottings and scribblings, for they are the life of the soul revealed, recorded for one's posterity, if one can but put up with the nuisance that their clutter inevitably provides.

It is tempting to pare down one's material possessions into some idealized end-state that resembles an Architectural Digest interior, neatly arranged and coordinated, feng shui'd to the n-th degree, complete with Zen rock garden in the front yard. But then where would the evidence remain of a life having been lived? The clutter of our personal affects are like a private archaeology that we bequeath to our progeny. Though their decline and rot are inevitable, as are their eventual discard, we owe it to our off-spring their access, a brief glimpse into the mystery of who we are, or once were.

(Written via Lamy Safari in composition book)

Monday, August 01, 2011

My Favorite Photo

Post-Script: Sometimes one half-sheet of typing is insufficient to say all that I want to say, in the manner that I'm used to, without leaving the piece with a sense of being unfinished.

I have almost 100 GB of digital photos to choose from in my personal archive; almost all of them are, by every measurable standard, much, much better on technical and aesthetic merits, than this one. Any yet, this image satisfies me more.

Perhaps it's the memory of having crafted the camera, using a novel method of using paper negatives as an over-sized version of a roll-film camera, then having gone out into public, found this composition and then processed and printed it, again by hand, in my darkroom. Perhaps it's the square format, of which I've long favored, and the way that the barrel and store front's edge divides the square so satisfyingly. Perhaps it's the wonderful gloss and texture of the fiber print's surface finish (which is difficult to appreciate in a mere scan). Perhaps it's the novel display, using an empty CD jewel case as a container.

I know; it's irrational. But it's also something that continues to motivate my continued pursuit of pinhole photography, in this day and age a mere anachronism; something that continues to take up room in the corner of my already tiny and over-crowded garage, this humble darkroom.

I'm years behind, in terms of contact printing all of the paper negatives I've created over the years, although most of them have been scanned and posted online. That, too, is irrational.

Wasted opportunity, wasted resources, yet hanging onto a dream because of a darkly mysterious paper print in a plastic jewel case, sitting on the shelf in my office. That's the way creativity is, like a single life-line, hanging on for dear life, no safety net, a mere dream-quest perhaps. That's my favorite photo.