Mike Lee is a writer, labor journalist, editor and photographer based in New York City. Fiction is published in The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, The Solidago Journal, West Trade Review, Paraphilia and Visions Libres.
Photo: Donna Rich
“In order to know the devil, you must first understand him. By understanding, it is nothing more than looking into a mirror in darkness and standing before it until you dissolve into your reflection. Subsume is the word; you become your darkness. Yes, that is the devil. The devil is you.”
Eddie’s earnestness and intensity was atypical, but so was his drinking Johnny Red neat, the fingers nervously turning the barrel glass grasped in two hands scraping the scuffed oak corner table as we sat chattering away.
I responded, “I see you are paraphrasing Jung, again. Red Book, I gather. Liber Novus, pretty pictures and illuminations, or perhaps the reader’s edition, all pimped out in a plastic cover and reading ribbon in order to look like the fucking Bible.” I was already into my second drink, and the dullness of getting drunk.
Eddie took note, “Yeah. Whatever you say. However, in the subsuming into his being, you become humanized. At least that’s what I think. Remember what Helen used to say—‘we are only human’—this, she would say before doing something to fuck you over again.”
He had a point. Regarding Helen, anyway. She’s the mistress of using precursive self-justification before dropping something really stupid on my lap to deal with, using those very words before, during and after engaging in some behavior that made me look stupid for being with her. I finally got sick of that, so she was out of my life. But, yes, we are all only human. She is more human than most, and I am paid to be less of the other, but that comes from our jobs.
Why Eddie brought Helen up is because he wanted to hurt me by deflecting my subtle insult toward his intelligence. I didn’t have much respect for it, and he knew after a couple of drinks it came out. Yes, I don’t need a mirror to know the devil; expensive scotch does just fine to reveal to me what a bastard I am, thank you. The Balevine is my mirror and though expensive, is better than standing in the dark with my dick hanging out.
I had no worries of such justifications from Eddie, for he was as straight as they came; as in straight line, or, better described, a descending arrow reflective of a rocket with poor propulsion engineering.
He is, however, a bit messed up; messed up being attention deficit disorder, and the medication begins to wear off after lunch. He also tends to drink on said meds, me catching him once a couple of years ago downing them with a beer at a bar. So he’s perpetually nervous, and often prone to stress attacks, generally pushed by our shared supervisor, another piece of work with more issues than The New York Times. Also, he tends to talk so fast that he is practically incoherent at times. Fortunately, however, he is mellowed out with the cheap ass scotch, and I can understand him, though not really wanting to, but since I am his friend and a captive audience I have no choice in the matter. He is paying the check; therefore, I endure.
We continue to discuss whatever was on his mind. When he drinks, he is more focused, but after too many drinks, Eddie becomes an opinionated blowhard asshole, and edgy—like he would reach across and attack you physically if you give the wrong response to anything he says. For example, our politics diverge dramatically at the fork between the sublime and the ridiculous.
I tend to try not thinking about things I cannot do anything about. I find myself nodding in agreement with just about anything he has to say in an avoidance ritual that, while I disliked greatly, served a wise purpose at my age. I don’t like conflict anymore, unless I find it a direct threat. He is not a direct threat not by any stretch of the imagination, his being from A to B, however, when I do wish to offer an opinion, it is usually a well placed thought serving to divert his attention. I learned it well long before he arrived in my life. After these scotches, it was vital to maintain that poise.
As I said, I never really liked doing this, but again, I had no choice in the matter. This was sad; wishing I had a different life, but this is the one I ended up having. Sitting here getting drunk with a person I don’t like very much. That’s not even tragic, so I am on thin ice to complain. Yet, I wish I could move on to the land of elsewhere and elsewhen, a place where there aren’t any people with problems, or I have the tools and courage to deal with them and not inflict on any others.
I would find such a place liberating, indeed. Like unicorns and virgins, and those who love you without question, there is no such place. Never was, this elsewhere and elsewhen; no heaven or hell, either. The paradise, I fear, is when we grant ourselves the privilege of dreaming as we sleep, and sadly, we often only remember the fragments, and usually not the best parts. As I sat across the table, I felt an urgency to go; to leave into the city and try to enjoy the Indian summer warmth before the cold front arrived the following evening.
I managed to finish my drink and convinced my so-called friend that he had had enough. I managed to get him on to the 1 train at Christopher Street uptown to the Port Authority, and turned and headed east toward the Hudson River. When I got to Hudson Street, I reached into my bag, pulled my Nikon point and shoot camera from its case, and adjusted the settings. I snapped off a few test shots, making sure I had enough street light to avoid using the flash, and satisfied with the results, I put the camera strap over my head, holding the Nikon steady and tight against my chest, as I walked north toward West 14th Street.
The Nikon is a small digital camera with twelve pixels of memory and a wide-angle len to make it easier to photograph people in the street without much suspicion. In the months since I began photographing street scenes, people, and the architecture of Manhattan, I learned that I am not totally invisible in that regard; people, at least more than a few, do have a subconscious awareness of the camera, and on occasion despite my best efforts, I am caught photographing someone. Once, a young woman gently grasped my wrist, and calmly, politely said, “Delete that.” I held up the camera for her to see the preview, and responded certainly as I erased it from the camera card. What she didn’t know is I shot another photo of her earlier. It sits in a folder somewhere on my laptop, and remains one of my favorite photographs.
However, I do not like that term, capture. You do not catch a photograph—you take one, and the intention is to create a work of art in the process, its value subjective to creator and to the viewer. Each day and evening I go out with the camera this process is to me both a means of expressing my creativity and a personal means of escape, particularly from the Eddies of the world. I do not consider myself the hunter, only if that what I am seeking is only the expressive manifestations of life itself, the mundane surroundings of where I go to and from; its emotions, angles, lines, shadows and light. Architecture urbane in its starkness, whether realistic or pretentious ,is only part of what appeals to me.
Several years ago I began by taking photos of the buildings in Greenwich Village, the high angles, spires and cornices reaching for the sky. More recently, in the last year or so, I began to populate these urban spaces with people, finding that there is a reaction, a response, to the urban environment around them. People in the morning, half-asleep, still in their daydreams, hopeful still for the day ahead, and in the evening, run down by the workaday, hopes faded, diminished by realism, dreams deferred as one can discern in their expressions, tired, worn and used.
They passed beneath the skyline approaches that I exposed with my camera as if ants scurrying up the streets. I became more confident and less timid, they grew larger as I photographed closer, tighter. I grew nearer to these people I passed, photographing them using my field of vision—my eyes—the camera positioned at my chest, snapping away, while in passing on the sidewalk.
I rarely use the viewfinder; I want to maintain that respect for their privacy by not intruding openly, instead, furtively, as a voyeur, or more accurately, an observer scribbling notes through pictures from the view of a passerby.
The first and only impression, only going as deep as what lies bare in their gestures, body language, eyes, sensing the feeling they unknowingly express to me as they walk by. But again, I believe that with so many of them, there is a hint of awareness. My initial motivation was to become more aware of my surroundings; lately it is because I am drawn by the possibility that in creation, I am conjuring a certain possible magic in this regard.
How do I know? I just do, another line I remember Helen using in the days when we were together, memories faded to journal pages and occasional recollections, dissolving to nothing as I snap a photograph of a woman crossing Perry Street, her tan trench coat open, scarf collected at her neck, arms swinging gracefully, with her head turned in a three-quarter profile with a determined expression on her face. I could say it was her mood, depending on what she felt she was walking toward, or regarding what she was leaving behind in her mind, but perhaps she glanced momentarily at my chest, and saw my hand over the Nikon, thumb pressed over the shutter, and she chose to expose a little of herself, her mood—who she is at that very moment, or in general. Strong-minded this figure on her approach, and I wondered after her passing, pausing to look down at the preview screen, if she went back to the face she held before I prepared to take her photo; expressionless, a little sad.
Younger than yesterday and not at all sure of herself, unlike the woman I supposedly ensnared in pixels, later to be processed in Adobe Lightroom, made into a black and white photo, printed on eight by ten glossy, filed in a folder, while the electronic image later stored in an external drive.
As I walk north on the cracked sidewalk, crossing pavement and the remaining brick streets in the Village, I segue into my natural daily rhythm as a street photographer, snapping features of passers-by, some interesting, but not as much as the woman crossing Perry Street. Still, I am at peace, forgetting liquor and Eddie, my work day, Helen, my mesh of boundaries and incipient fears, and just letting go. I am happy, imbued with a sense of creative satisfaction.
I do not think much about technical perfection. I make an effort, and daily learn to do more, and better. Albeit, I only think forward to the next photograph. Whatever I accomplish in terms of what makes what I created good is not up to me, and slowly I plod toward completing a portfolio to present to galleries, and upload online to photographic competitions.
Only I know when I am ready for it. I know I am not, just yet. Until then, I move in the darkness, with the street lamps and light reflected from the automobiles and the apartments and shops providing the basis for my canvas along with the sidewalks, buildings and streets for the figures of this city I paint with my thumb pressing the shutter, my left hand holding the camera steady. Some I will know I have missed, most I will not have correctly. I realize I can get it right at a future time, another day or evening, sometime. Never worried, and I don’t let a failure bother me. Losing Helen will continue to bother me for longer, but never does at the end. In the long run, people matter more than art.
Satisfied mainly because of the photo of the woman in the trench coat, I stop taking pictures when I reach the corner at 14th Street. I put the Nikon in my bag and wait at the bus stop. On the M14 bus ride home, I stare out watching the urban carnival pass. I decide to get off at Union Square, and take out my camera again to take photos of the Hare Krishnas performing at the corner. I get down on my knees and take some full frame photos through the viewfinder, mainly of an aging blond dancing to their music. I purposely go for slow exposures, her arms, legs swirling against the lights from the shopping mall across the street. I felt alive, a part of something, though distant I am not in isolation, feeling a sense of belonging this evening that I did not at the bar trying to have a conversation with Eddie, or in the past with Helen—at least not in a long time.
When finished, I make my way through the crowd, surreptitiously as is my wont, snapping images of chess players, lovers, homeless caging quarters, guitarists and tourists, until I reach the triangle park across the street. Returned into my bag, the Nikon lays at the bottom as I make my way home.
After I arrive, I make a fresh pot of coffee. I turn on my laptop, and insert the card from my camera. I make my way through the Lightroom collection of the night’s work to the photo of the woman in the trench coat. I pause to stare.
Upon closer inspection, I discover she is staring directly at me, having turned her face, but keeping her gaze on me. She knew. Not assumed subconsciously, she was fully aware of me and my Nikon. As the other street photographers I met since I began this informal project say on occasion, the hunter was captured. While I never think in those terms, I see this image for what I feel it truly is, which is this was a connection, and a story attempting to be told. She felt a link and wanted to convey a notion of a narrative, and I guess I did as well, considering how I felt afterward.
I looked again at her expression. She looked confident, but in her eyes I detected a hint of apprehension, possibly of revealing too much or thinking momentarily that there was a connection—a two-ended arrow as a fine line from her eyes to mine when they met as I clicked the shutter. Will I see her again? Probably not, but I will remember her and that is the point, this much is for certain. She, crossing Perry Street, aged mid-40s, medium build, five-five, with blond strands flying across her brows as she turns slightly away from me. Still pretty and now remains so, remembered, and yes, I must admit, captured.
Thus is the magic I have conjured, and am reminded that although Jung also wrote about magicians in the Red Book, and perhaps when out in the street, I am one; changing a person with my presence magically by the mere fact that I have a camera strapped loosely about my neck.
Maybe Eddie is correct without actually realizing it, as he was half-drunk talking. While the devil you know is the one I recognize as myself, I am too shy to lead anyone to temptation, but with these images I deliver them from evil, and keep them filed in my own purposeful innocence.
For a moment, a second, I represented temptation. I saw the ring.