Saturday, December 19, 2009

Slideluck Potshow, Santa Fe, NM Pt. II

The Slideluck Potshow event in Santa Fe earlier this month was excellent. Good food, great photographs, and a full-house on a cold, snowy, Wednesday night. City of Dust's slideshow contribution can (no longer) be viewed on-line RIGHT HERE. Look for "Cities of Dust: American Decay" near the top of the right-hand column. A very big thanks to Slideluck Potshow and Center for putting this event together. I was honored to be a part of it.

The above photo is another from the old Albuquerque rail yard. A photo-laden post on that place is on the way.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Slideluck Potshow, Santa Fe, NM

I'm very pleased that a couple dozen of my photos will be included in the Santa Fe edition of Slideluck Potshow, presented this Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at the New Mexico History Center. It should be a very cool time with lots of great photography, food, folks and other surprises. The address is: 113 Lincoln Avenue, Santa Fe, NM and the whole thing runs from 6:30pm to 9pm. All the info can (no longer) be found right HERE. Hope to see you there.

The above photo is from a recent trip to the old Albuquerque rail yard. A longer post on that lovely old complex is in the works.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

A Man a Woman Walked By

We passed each other by a broken fountain in a cement courtyard with no one else around, the weather turning gray and cold. At the same moment, we both glanced up from the ground. Neither of us smiled but there was something that caught and held. I kept on for several steps and then felt I had to turn around. You had already stopped and were looking back at me. Unnerved, I continued across the courtyard and into a shop. Through the window I could see that you had sat down on a nearby bench and were looking toward the store. I had come to the shop to look for a record entitled “A Man a Woman Walked By.” Really. I can’t make this kind of thing up. They had a copy at a good price. I suspected that a mistake was being made and went back outside without making the purchase, but you had disappeared.

What was lost? Perhaps a beautiful affair is now gone forever, something precious never to be recovered. Or perhaps you would have stabbed me in your car later that night, dumped my body near the river and the next day been back at that broken fountain looking for some other man, some guy that didn’t make you want to kill him, if such a person actually existed. It’s also possible that, after a period of passion and tumult, I would have told you about another girl, someone I loved more than you, if I’d even grown to really care about you at all. You can never be too sure about strangers these days and everything we knew about each other was in that brief moment when our eyes met. Was that enough? Was it everything? Or was it nothing? Because, you know, men and women pass each other every second of the day and it’s possible that we were only both just slightly out of our minds.

At least, I figure I must be slightly out of my mind because now you’re another person I never knew that I’m going to miss for the rest of my life, even if you would have killed me.

Photos are of a little lost schoolhouse somewhere on Highway 60 in central New Mexico.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Penitentiary Blues: The Santa Fe Prison Riot

Fifteen miles south of Santa Fe stands the old New Mexico State Penitentiary which opened in 1956 and closed in 1998. Virtually every other piece of historical information regarding the prison pales into insignificance in the face of a riot which began at approximately 2 am on February 2, 1980. That riot is considered to be the most violent prison uprising in U.S. history if not the deadliest (that dubious honor likely goes to the 1971 riot at Attica in New York). Information on the prison’s architecture and overall history apart from the riot is nearly non-existent, buried under the mountain of horror unleashed that day in February. So, here is the story of the New Mexico State Penitentiary riot, told for the umpteenth time, though hopefully more comprehensively than what you’ll find on Wikipedia and with some recent photos. (Photo above is of the pen's gas chamber, which was used only once, in 1960, to execute a man that killed a hitchhiker. New Mexico repealed the death penalty earlier this year.)

In the early 1970’s, the New Mexico State Penitentiary operated under a system whereby certain inmates were selected to help run prison programs. These prisoners could approve or reject other prisoner’s requests to join programs and, as these programs were popular with the prisoners, it was in everyone’s best interest to assure their continuance. Thus, the selected inmates, in cooperation with their fellow prisoners, made sure that order was maintained and no one jeopardized their good thing. However, by the late 1970’s, the New Mexican correctional system was in disarray. The chain of command among prison officials was weak and confusing and oversight of regulations lax. Around this time prisoner-led programs ended and a new policy was implemented, one whereby prisoners were routinely turned against other prisoners and coercion was used to obtain information and overall compliance. Divide and conquer became the guiding objective. (Accompanying photo shows cell graffiti. Regulations forbidding graffiti were relaxed just before the penitentiary closed.)

Further, the New Mexico State Penitentiary contained high-security cells, New Mexico’s death row and its attendant gas chamber, as well as the protective custody unit, in which those inmates considered at risk of assault if allowed in the general population were housed. This included prisoners who had given evidence against their fellow inmates. Moreover, when built in 1956, the prison was designed to contain 800 men. By 1980 more than 1100 prisoners lived together in close quarters. A renovation of a cellblock at the time saw some of the most dangerous criminals moved from a high-security area to more dormitory-like arrangements. This overcrowding and mixing of New Mexico’s most violent, notorious, disturbed and vulnerable criminals in one facility was more fuel to be tossed on what was already becoming a dangerous powder keg. (Accompanying photo is of a death row cell. Photo below is of a meeting table beside death row.)

Finally, those guarding the inmates at the penitentiary had grown demoralized and careless. In any given year, 80% of the prison staff quit. The high-turnover rate meant that guards were frequently unfamiliar with the operation of the prison and the building itself. Nor would the guards always know the history of those incarcerated in the prison. At the time of the riot, many guards let prisoners do as they pleased in their cells, as long as it didn’t turn into something the guards had to deal with personally. Thus many prisoners were routinely victims of physical and sexual assault and drug use was rampant. In addition to drugs, some prisoners made their own alcohol, a strange fact which ended up being the flame which finally lit the fuse.

While on their rounds during the early morning of February 2, two guards came upon a couple of prisoners in a dormitory that were drunk on alcohol they’d made with fermented fruit. The intoxicated inmates attacked and overcame the guards and, as the guards had failed to follow procedure, leaving the cell block doors they had just come through open, the prisoners quickly made their way to the prison’s control center, where they flipped switches unlocking most of the penitentiary. Once free, hundreds of inmates fanned throughout the prison, taking fourteen guards and one medical technician hostage. While things were about to get much, much worse, some inmates were already fighting the tide and three guards were given safe hiding places by sympathetic prisoners. Meanwhile, anything that could be used as a weapon was procured and made into one, and the hospital was raided for its drug supply. Even glue was sought out and huffed. (Accompanying photo and photo below are pretty self-explanatory.)

It was about this time that some inmates, possibly less than a dozen, set out for the protective custody unit. Once there, suspected informers were taken from their cells and set on fire or had their limbs cut off one-by-one, each successive wound cauterized to prolong the suffering. One prisoner was propped in front of a window and, in full view of the National Guard, now gathered beyond the 12-foot fence outside, was killed with a blowtorch. While keys to the outside doors of several wings of the prison were available, the decision was made not to enter and, instead, to attempt to negotiate with the prisoners. Meanwhile, the carnage inside escalated.

During the negotiations it became clear that, in fact, no one was in charge of the riot and, therefore, no one was in a position to stop it. Those convicts being negotiated with made claims of overcrowding, bad food and harassment while others, weary of the violence, began to leave the prison and line up along the outside fence, seeking refuge. Other prisoners tried to protect certain of their fellow inmates and lost their lives because of it. Still others worked to release the guards. Such was the disarray and lack of leadership that prisoners could release hostages while their fellow inmates made demands intended to be met before these very same hostages would be released. (Accompanying photo is from Cell Block 4, where prisoners in protective custody were housed. The slender white marks on the floor in the foreground were caused by hatchets used to dismember inmates.)

By the bitter end, only three hostages remained and two very violent prisoners, Michael Colby and William Jack Stephens, demanded and were granted transfer to a federal facility for their release. Colby and Stephens were told to get their belongings from their cells, the three hostages were released, and the State Police and the National Guard entered the prison and re-took it without opposition from the approximately 100 inmates still inside.

Those entering the prison found true horror: bodies had been put in ovens in the kitchen, limbs were scattered on the ground, one corpse had no head, another was hanging from the ceiling with the word “RAT” cut into its chest, yet another had a metal bar shoved in one ear and out the other. The bodies of two inmates were never found and were presumed entirely incinerated. All told, the 36-hour nightmare left at least 33 inmates dead and nine seriously injured. One guard was in serious condition--some guards were badly beaten and sodomized--and the New Mexican Corrections Department had been brought to its knees. (Accompanying photo is from Cell Block 4. The dark stain on the floor marks where a body was burned.)

(Above photo shows an old bed frame in the infirmary.)

The major causes of the riot are out-lined above, all of them preventable. Lawsuits had already been filed regarding the overcrowding, the lack of a command structure within the NM prison system was well-known (basic security inspections at the penitentiary went undone for years as no one knew who should be conducting them) and the use of drugs amongst inmates was no secret. Thus the riot itself should have come as no surprise. What is surprising, of course, is the level of violence. Obviously, housing the protective custody unit, which included “snitches,” in the main facility was a grievous mistake and one subsequently corrected. But, beyond that, and in overpowering opposition to those inmates, possibly the vast majority, who did not participate or even risked and lost their lives to reduce the violence, something unspeakably wicked was at work over those 36 hours. James Weston, the Chief Medical Examiner at the time, was quoted as saying, "Virtually every one of the bodies had overkill, which is to say that there was more than mob hysteria. There was rage." That much seems abundantly clear, but the prison psychologist, Dr. Marc Orner, made a much more telling statement when he said, "None of us really understands what happened in there. The depth of the violence is incomprehensible to me as a human being and as a psychologist. It is as if all the aggression a human being can have was savagely unleashed. We just can't understand why they did this to each other." (Accompanying photo shows a few rays of sunlight.)

The American justice system seems a shadowy and powerful animal and the forces it wields are largely beyond our understanding. We know very little about how to alter the human spirit to the good; there are myriad ways to corrupt that same spirit and plunge it into darkness. Can prisons consistently do the former rather than the latter? To what degree does the criminal justice system create monsters that can murder without mercy? Or, to what degree do those monsters arrive fully-formed, merely waiting? The questions are serious, the answers remain unclear. (Photo below is of the check-in desk of the infirmary. The infirmary was raided for drugs during the riot.)


Interestingly enough, apart from the obvious changes to the prison system in the years following the riot, changes in the prison population itself have reduced the likelihood of such riots. Prison gangs have consolidated their power and, where numerous small gangs used to fight for position and influence, now only a couple well-established gangs maintain a fragile peace. Finally, in the mid-1980’s, drug smuggling within the New Mexico State Penitentiary (and, I would imagine, prisons throughout the country), became more sophisticated and materially lucrative. Drugs are now a significant incentive, both to the users and distributors within the prison, and no one wants to rock the boat if it means they might not get their fix. Thus crime controls the criminal.

There have been books published on the riot, such as the Devil's Butcher Shop by Roger Morris and the Hate Factory by Georgelle Hirliman, yet much of what you find on the internet is somewhat basic and very similar. One of the most instructive websites I found included this INTERVIEW with an initial investigator of the event. Also, Time Magazine’s original coverage, published just after the riot, was quite interesting.

(Above photo is from the second floor of the prison. This may have been a cafeteria.)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chong Kneas, Floating Village

Sunset on the Lake

Tonlẽ Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia, fed by or, depending on the season, feeding the mighty Mekong River. The water level fluctuates from a depth of about 10 m in the wet season to 2 m in the dry and the lake nourishes a huge chunk of the region, providing a livelihood to thousands-upon-thousands. In an effort to lure visitors and their money away from Angkor Wat for awhile, the Cambodian government promotes trips to Tonlẽ Sap, particularly to visit the floating villages. These floating villages are just what the name implies, complete with schools, stores and churches. The tours are described as relaxing boat rides through a unique and picturesque waterscape. But when traveling it is often the height of naivety to expect all to be as it’s portrayed. And therein lays the fun.

After a sweltering day-and-a-half visiting the mind-blowing Angkor Wat complex, my friend and I decided to visit Tonlẽ Sap and Chong Kneas, the closest of all the floating villages to Siem Reap. We asked our friendly and reliable tuk-tuk driver (#2205) if he could take us to the lake and he assured us this was no problem. Soon we were rattling through dense traffic and endless road construction. Several times we had to get out and walk while the driver took the tuk-tuk off-road for brief stretches to get around obstacles. I inhaled more dust than I had over the previous 36 hours, which is really saying something. I dearly regretted not buying a cheap mask at the pharmacy as many people, locals and visitors alike, do. My throat was going to be sore for days.

Floating Village

Following a quick stop at the tuk-tuk driver’s house so he could drop off some fruit for his family, we were out of Siem Reap and into…something very different. Poverty on a large scale is always disarming, and the shacks and shanties on the road to the lake were the first indication that economics might be about to intrude on our scenic boat tour. We got to the boat launch about 4 pm and bought a ticket for a “government” boat (private boats are apparently available, but it’s not clear how to get them) with an extra “sunset” fee (i.e., a charge for staying on the water long enough to watch the sun go down). Thus began a very strange journey.

The entire floating village moves with the seasonal change in water level and, as the water was still quite low in the early spring, Chong Kneas was about as far out in the lake as it ever gets. Consequently, we had a long trip to the village, past all manner of boats, most patched up 10,000 times over with material of every description. Along the narrow channel leading into the lake dilapidated houseboats were moored everywhere possible and occasionally someone would be swimming in the filthy water. Had I dove in for a quick dip my immune system would’ve thrown up its hands in defeat and called it a day. Everything was totally fascinating and exotic and disturbing, as only 3rd world poverty can be. Immediately our gregarious guide started talking about how poor the people of Chong Kneas were and how they needed money for many things. I sensed a pitch coming on.

Store of Sticks

The village itself was an incredible array of dozens of ramshackle floating structures broken into Vietnamese, Muslim, and Cambodian sections. It looked more like a floating ghetto, perhaps, but it was difficult to gauge how comfortable the people were in their situation.Mean MonkeyDuring our trip we interacted with very few residents and no one seemed to pay us any mind as our boat went along. We passed a pig in a floating pen and a Catholic church. Then, without warning, we pulled up at a market, disembarked and were shown school supplies. It was suggested that for $20.00 we could buy a package of books and some pencils for the kids at school. Outside was a mean monkey on a chain that lunged at my friend when he tried to take a photo. Earlier, I'd had no such trouble. The guide warned us to back away from the monkey. So, what the hell can you do? We handed over $20.00 and our guide put the books and pencils into a bag. We got back into our boat just as a French family in an identical boat was docking.

Aquatic Pig Pen

We sailed right over to the school where the kids were just getting out of class and into their own boats to go home. Inside we were introduced to the teacher and got our picture taken giving him the books and the pencils. Similar pictures of previous tourists lined the walls. We were told we could take photographs of some of the children. I asked one girl if she wanted her picture taken and she laughed and shook her head. I left her alone.

School's Out

O ur guide then told us that the teacher could use some money to buy supplies for the classroom and extra food for the kids. I gave $10.00 to the teacher, who struck me as looking a little sheepish about the whole thing. On the way out I saw the French family getting out of their boat with a bag of notebooks and pencils.

The Village Store

Next we headed through the village and boarded a restaurant boat complete with an on-board crocodile farm and some voracious fish in a wooden tank. We decided to pass on the dinner. After a tour of the boat and a little biology/geography lesson, we were sold a can of soda and then sat down at a table with a well-spoken and very effeminate fellow, a self-proclaimed ladyboy, who told us he loved Pelẽ, Brazilian football and WWF Smackdown. He and our guide seemed to be friends, although our guide went out of his way to appear annoyed with him.

After awhile we climbed up some stairs and checked out the view from the top of the boat. The floating village was spread out before us, the sun slowly sinking into Tonlẽ Sap. We decided to head out early in order to get some photos from the water before the sun set completely. There was a slight delay as we helped out a boat with a dead battery. The family in the boat was clearly unhappy with the way their trip had been going. They were making no bones about it. It was hard to have much sympathy for them.

Living on the Water

We sailed out past people fishing and washing from the porches of their houseboats in the muddy-brown water. There were a few bonfires burning off on the shore. As we made our way back through the channel our guide said the Cambodian government had plans to make the entire area a world-class shipping port, essentially eliminating all that we saw around us. Lord knows how this would work. For one thing, they’d have to do considerable work to stabilize and dredge the lake as its area swings wildly from 3,000 to 10,000 sq. km and it can be very shallow, depending on the season and rainfall. Yet there was evidence of construction on the banks nearby.

By the time we returned to shore it was pitch dark. Our guide mentioned that he needed money for school and was very disappointed when I said I didn’t have much left. I scrounged up $5 for him and $2 for the driver. I considered telling the guide he should’ve pitched less for everyone else if he wanted something for himself. How much of this was a scam I have no idea. Other tours are advertised, but they seem pretty cheesy and are mostly billed as “dinner tours.” Maybe the schoolteachers and the boat guides are in cahoots and splitting the proceeds. Maybe the government is taking the money and using it for its own purposes. Or--who knows?--maybe it’s legit. But it’s hard to imagine there’s not some skimming somewhere. All told, this was probably a $50.00 ride by the time it was over.

In Tonle Sap

In reality, the village is spectacular and unusual, even if disconcerting. And I was happy that I had a look at Chong Kneas, despite the lingering feeling of being ripped-off. But I thought back to the previous day in Angkor Wat, when a young boy tried to sell me a bootleg guide to the temples. At first he said the book was one dollar. “One dollar?” I asked. I could afford that. “No, three dollars,” he said. I hesitated. “Five dollars,” he continued. This was a very unusual business tactic. “What happened to one dollar?” I asked. “It can’t be less than five,” he replied. He was probably working under the instructions of whoever supplied the books. “I can’t afford five dollars,” I said. “I don’t have any money.” This was technically true as I was traveling my way deeper into debt with every step, but the kid was having none of it. His eyes hardened and he glared up at me. “You are from America. You have come to Cambodia. You have money. I will wait until you are ready to leave the temple and then you will buy the book.” I laughed but he did not. So I walked around for awhile and on my way out, sure enough, there was the kid with his book. I handed him the $5 and he grumbled his thanks and walked off. In travel, as in life, sometimes you have to let yourself be ripped-off a little. It’s only fair.

Going Home

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Ghost in the Mirror


I had a dream about you and ghosts. The ghosts were fierce and dangerous and I needed you to help me fight them. In the dream, time was compressed and day turned into night and back into day over and over.Better Stay InsideWhile the sun was up I couldn’t find you, I could only hope that when darkness fell you would return to me again, as you had each night before. I knew that some evening I would search for you, wandering across the shadowed hills and valleys, and you would no longer be there. I did not know if we could defeat the ghosts before you left for good but I knew I would never be able to do it on my own. With daylight you would disappear again and I would miss you terribly, but at night I didn’t think I could live without you. The ghosts would begin to swing through the purple sky, suddenly everywhere and nowhere, too, my fear of them sometimes paling beside my desire to be with you. You were better at banishing these specters than me, more skillful, and I would listen to your instructions at the end of each day as the sun set on the bleak horizon. For some reason I did not understand you would then insist that we split up and hunt the shades alone, but I could not seem to fight properly on my own. I was unable to see what you had to show me, did not recognize what you saw so clearly.

I woke up feeling ill-at-ease and strange, my thoughts of you entirely irrational. I barely even knew you and, anyway, I don’t believe you can expect someone else to fight your demons for you. But still, you know, maybe sometimes the battle is actually won together. I guess that’s just one more thing we’ll never know for sure.

All photos taken at Mare Island, Vallejo, California, USA.

P.S. Let's hear it for AUGUSTA! If you can't take the heat...

Friday, July 31, 2009

The State of the City

The Cupboard is Bare

I was re-reading some old posts the other day, something I don’t do very often, and was struck by how often over the last 5 years I was leaving someplace, looking for somewhere else to go or just plain trapped. I like that I’ve lived many different places and seen so many things, but I did find something about those posts alarming. So many cities, jobs, people… It can do strange things to a person. Hard travelin’ and ramblin’, the sort of thing Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams sang about, has nothing to do with Caribbean cruises and weekends on the beach at Club Med. When Robert Johnson moaned, “I’ve got to keep movin’, I’ve got to keep movin’” at the start of “Hellhound on My Trail,” he was following the classic blues format. That is, the first line states a problem. The second line reiterates that problem. And the need for constant movement is a problem. Yet I find movement soothing like very little else. I rarely care where I’m going or when I’ll get there. Robert Johnson apparently felt the same way, waking up in the middle of the night to hop passing freights with no regard for direction or destination. He was dead by age 27. Someone once told me that the difference between travel and a vacation is obvious. If it’s really hard, smile, you’re traveling.

Grape Ape Code Blue

All this is a roundabout, long-winded way of saying I’m headed to Albuquerque and hope to stay awhile. It doesn’t take much perusing of this site to see that I have a special fondness for the desert Southwest. Also, one of my big regrets is that I didn’t start City of Dust until after I’d left Augusta, GA. I have received so many comments and wonderful invitations from people in the Central Savannah River Area that I have had no way of accepting. I still get them. Everything from trips to abandoned mills in Horse Creek Valley to guided tours through the neighborhood James Brown grew up in, complete with a stop at the brothel he lived in with his aunt. I really want to do a similar exploration of the dusty corners of New Mexico, Arizona, and elsewhere, but post it in real-time. All-in-all, I’d like to post more and maybe if I sit still for once I can do that. More photos, more obscure history, more abandonment, and, of course, a few creative writing exercises here and there.


In the meantime, it’s Nebraska tomorrow followed by a couple days in New Mexico. Then a trip to LA and a jaunt to the eastern Sierras. After that, a few days in the Bay Area and a drive back down to Albuquerque. I have no idea how many tens of thousands of miles I’ve logged in the last year. I’ve gone from point A to point B by planes, trains, ferries, bamboo rafts, horse-drawn buggies and an elephant. But, as a friend of mine used to say, “I think I’ll take it on up to the house now.” And, as Townes Van Zandt said, “New Mexico ain’t bad, lord, the people there they treat you fine…”

All photos taken in Chaska, Minnesota, USA.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Scene at Grass Lake

We were walking around Grass Lake, a walk we’d done many times before, but never quite like this. We hadn’t seen each other in over a month. It hadn’t really been that long since we’d seen each other every minute of every day for days on end. But then something happened and I was glad for the distance now. I thought she probably was too, but you can never be sure.

It was nearly dark and very warm. The air was thick with humidity and every now and then we walked through a cloud of bugs. Heat lightning flashed off on the horizon. She looked as beautiful as always, her blonde hair pulled back, a few wisps hanging down her neck. But her eyes rarely met mine and when they did I didn’t like what I saw; this had nothing to do with me. She was in trouble and as we went she told me of her problems. They were many and they were serious.

I recalled how once I sat in her kitchen scowling, wallowing in a black mood. When she asked for an explanation, I said, “You can pull away from the abyss, but some of the abyss will always come back with you.” After she was done laughing, she kissed me and took my hand. “C’mon, I’ll buy you dinner.” It was a great dinner. Hell, it turned into a great night. She always knew which buttons to push to make everything suddenly alright. But I’d never found those buttons in her and I wasn’t about to stumble across them now.

“Life’s a gift,” I told her. I wasn’t smiling. This was no joke.

“Yeah, well, my gift arrived broken.”

We looked at each other and in that instant I felt something so powerful and so sad it made me ache. I wanted her again, suddenly, and more than ever. I wanted it to be like it had been, even if only briefly. As we were now, I couldn’t help her. There was a time when I would’ve argued that it was perfectly natural for ex-lovers to remain friends. The years have proved me entirely wrong. There is a place that two people can get to together, often beautiful, sometimes terrible, and when it becomes impossible to go there any longer all that remains is empty, un-crossable distance. I didn’t want to lose this girl entirely, for this thing to happen again, but I could see its inevitability. I couldn't find a way to touch her without using my hands.

In the twilight we watched a large snapping turtle crawl along the bank of the lake. When I was young I used to see these big snappers all the time. They looked so dignified and serious. Prehistoric. But I don’t see them much anymore. I suppose most have been run over or poisoned out of their lakes. Perhaps many have simply died of old age. Their young are the size of quarters when they crawl out of their eggs, with hardly a chance of living as long as their parents. I felt afraid for that turtle, slow and alone, the last of its kind, like I felt afraid for the girl beside me. Then I began to feel afraid for myself, and that’s a pointless, pathetic place to be, the end of the line. Now I just wanted to go home. Alone.

It wasn’t long before we were back at the cars. The stars were out, the moon rising when we said our good-byes, a slight hesitation before a quick hug. As has happened so often, we went our separate ways into the darkness, no longer of any use to one another, barely of any use to ourselves. Forever apart.

The top photo is from Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia. The 2nd and 4th shots are from Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photograph #3 was taken at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. I'll try to do a post on Cambodia soon, I think.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Trouble in Mind

I’ve been listening to a lot of Janis Joplin lately because of a dead woman. She died in late middle-age and I never met her. One day she went into her basement, put some towels on the concrete floor under the laundry tub, just beside the washer, and lay down. She opened her veins as close to the main drain as possible to minimize the mess and died there, amidst the old boxes and musty clothes.

The woman was the aunt of a friend of mine and we were driving to her house to get boxes and packing material. Apparently she’d been a pack-rat and who wants to spend money on boxes and foam peanuts if you can get them for free?

“Yeah,” my friend said, “the house was being foreclosed on. She could’ve tried a few other things to deal with the mortgage but I guess she didn’t know it. Or didn't care. The bank doesn’t want the place anyway. I had to go over and clean up the mess after they took her away.”

“Blood’s a bad smell, isn’t it?” I said.

“Yeah, like rusted metal or something. I’ll never forget it.”

We pulled into the driveway of a small house in a neighborhood that looked like it had been built sometime in the 1950’s. Inside debris was strewn here and there, the detritus of a lifetime. A rhinestone rodeo shirt was draped over a chair, a box of old Christmas ornaments sat in the corner. A few things had price tags.

“The people from the bank had a sale and this is what’s left. Take anything you want ‘cause it’ll all be gone soon. The boxes are downstairs.”

I took a look around. I didn’t want a damn thing.

In the basement was a mountain of packing material, boxes of all shapes and sizes. “Priority Mail.” “Macy’s.” “” I kicked my way through and caught an address label. Now I knew her name.

It took half an hour to dig through the pile, pulling out what I could use and tossing everything else aside. Every square of linoleum on the floor had come loose and they slid here and there every time I turned around. It was dirty and some of the boxes were covered in a film of mildew. It seemed like a hard way to save a few bucks on bubble wrap. It seemed an even poorer place to die.

“Hey, here’s some records,” my friend called from the other room. “You can have them if you want.”

I went next door and flipped through the stack. Moody Blues Symphony, Gino Vannelli, The Jazz Singer. Useless. On the floor was an oddball. Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits on cassette. I stuck it in my shirt pocket. I’m driving a car that only has a tape deck and my cassettes are in a storage closet in Oakland. I can only take so much NPR and Janis was going to be a welcome addition.

My friend was over by the washing machine, a clean patch of concrete in front of him. “Check this out,” he said. I walked over and he pointed to the the corroded drain cover. “Some of that isn’t rust. I cleaned as best I could, but it’s impossible to get everything. They had to get a plumber in to clear the drain.” I bent down for a look. I could still smell the acrid tang.

I grabbed my boxes and foam and went back upstairs. Near a stack of discarded ceramic figurines was a John Lee Hooker CD wrapped in a Xeroxed print-out. Probably a freebie tossed in with an order. I put it in one of my boxes while my friend stuffed everything he could into the pick-up. Hell, I figured he’d earned it.

“Let the bank clean everything up,” he said, putting the key back in the box. “Fuck them.”

We drove away from the woman’s home, her life and death. The whole thing felt shabby, undignified.

Later, in the car, I put Janis in the deck. “Down on Me” came cranking out of the speakers and sounded great, better than I remembered, Janis’s voice a force of nature. She groaned and screamed and moaned while Big Brother and the Holding Company played the hell out of the song behind her. It beat another edition of Car Talk.

That night I put on the John Lee Hooker CD. “Tupelo” crept out of the speakers. Primal. John Lee’s voice maybe not of this world. Great music. Life-changing music. Life-SAVING music. And it made me think, “Maybe if this lady had just put aside the Funny Girl soundtrack and her Kenny Loggins records and dug out Janis and John Lee she would’ve been able to tough it out awhile longer. “Footloose” can’t help anyone at 3AM when you’ve been staring at the floor since midnight, but I challenge any person to listen to a Townes Van Zandt song and then turn around and pack it in. I might have razor in hand, gun in mouth or car idling in the garage and if I heard “If I Needed You” I’d lay down arms and at least wait to see what the next day held. I might not like it, but I’d have no choice.

So, you can say what you want about art, minimize the value of a song—sure, hearing Janis couldn’t save Janis, but that’s a whole different thing. When it comes down to it, choose your soundtrack wisely ‘cause bad taste might not kill you, but it sure won’t keep you alive either.

Photos are of the 16th St. Station, Oakland, California, USA.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Welcome to Sarajevo

The train from Zagreb passes through a landscape that seems unlike anyplace else I’ve visited in Western Europe. I don’t recognize the names of towns to come: Velika Gorica, Banja Luka, Maglaj, Visoko. Shortly after leaving the station most signs are in Cyrillic only. The door to the train compartment is thrown open by a man in uniform. We’ve reached the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina. I feel strangely intimidated during an exchange which requires no speaking on my part. After a moment he hands me back my passport. “Hvala.” Thank you.

Beyond the train, old women work dry fields, sowing seed by hand. Thin, leathery men rake and hoe beside them. A goat or two meanders around a yard. A river runs alongside the tracks and the rocks and branches are hung with thousands—perhaps millions—of plastic bags, representing all the colors of the rainbow. However, I notice that most are blue or yellow. Bags way up in the brush along the bank show the high water mark. Sometimes there are signs warning of landmines and buildings pocked with the scars of artillery fire.

The attendant from passport control has been looking closely at the identification of the man on the other side of the compartment. The attendant turns and asks me something but I don’t understand. He sees this and laughs. “You are okay,” he says, pleasantly. The man across the compartment smiles and winks at me as he is handed back his ID card. “Do viđenja.” Good-bye.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a land marked by war and Sarajevo, its capital city, reflects this history. Near the city center is the bridge where Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophia, were assassinated. Shortly afterwards Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, starting WWI. Not far away is a second bridge where two young women, Suada Dilberović and
Olga Sučić, became the first Bosnian civilian casualties in Sarajevo of a much more recent war.

It is hard to imagine that less than a decade after hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics Sarajevo had become a bloody warzone, the cities dead nearly reaching 10,000 by the start of 1996. Today the Olympic buildings remain, though some have had to be rebuilt. The Olympic Village can be seen under the snow-capped peaks of the Dinaric Alps beyond and the Olympic flame is now re-lit each year to commemorate the games. Yet across the street is a cemetery with row after row of graves, each bearing a similar date: 1992, 1993, 1994... Above the markers, now made of stone to replace the flimsy old plywood memorials, sits a lion; it, too, partially repaired in the last few years.

Yet the city of Sarajevo is vibrant, feeling to me as much like Western Europe as my first glimpse of the surrounding landscape did not. Tourists have returned to Baščaršija, the Old Town, where ancient mosques and minarets flank cafes and souvenir stores. Cobbled streets lead to dessert shops and internet clubs. The baroque Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the Balkans, stands majestically, waiting for the faithful, as it has for nearly 150 years.

On the other end of town are the headwaters of Vrelo Bosne, several gushing mountain springs that provide drinking water for all of Sarajevo. I fill my water bottle and drink the impossibly clear water all day. A ridge rises above the spring, where once ran the “Road to Salvation,” so-named because, if one could just cross the hills alive, on the other side was free Bosnia. Now a horse-drawn carriage transports us back and forth along a tree-lined avenue and vendors line the small streams that join to become the mighty river that gave Bosnia its name.

The “yellow Holiday Inn” still stands, formerly the last refuge of foreign journalists reporting on the unfolding carnage in Sarajevo. Alongside is the infamous “Sniper Alley,” an open street that made easy targets out of anyone trying to travel it, even at a dead run. But the thoroughfares now bustle with cars and people, cell phones in hands, attend to the day’s business.

High above the city sits the Vraca WWII Partisan Memorial, formerly an ideal vantage point for soldiers firing into the city, and utterly destroyed by the war’s end. No effort has yet been made to repair this place, the building stripped of anything of worth and strewn with garbage. But one can’t help feeling that this is the Sarajevo of yesterday, when the future was at best uncertain, at worst something to be feared.

On the train back to Zagreb a young Muslim boy hears me speak and enters my compartment. He says he speaks some English and tells me he would like my address and phone number so that when he visits America he can look me up. He enters the information in his mobile while telling me that wants to travel and “live a life like Indiana Jones.” There are many other things he tells me; his English is actually quite good. He loves animals, especially dolphins. His father’s best friend from the war drinks too much and lives in Texas. There is a hotel by his home where I could stay if I don’t have reservations elsewhere. (I do.) He has already visited Switzerland, Canada and South America. Much of what he says is surprising to me, though, in the way of kids, it must seem perfectly natural to him. As the train pulls into the station and we say good-bye I can only hope that his life will not be marked by the kind of war his father has known, that he will get the chance to live the life he desires. And, if by chance he arrives at my door several years hence, it will be a life that I will be very anxious to hear about it.