Archive for May, 2011

May 30, 2011

Near the underpass on Flushing’s Main Street, I ask a man with a camera if he’s a photographer. He points to the older man beside him wearing what looks like a fisherman’s hat and vest, and says, “Magnum.”

A ten-minute conversation with Bruce Gilden ensues. He and his student had been leaning against a streetlamp across from a grocery store waiting for a shot. I’d spotted them earlier on my way to a café, and when I saw them again, on my way to another café, I felt compelled to interrupt their vigil. And the first silly thing I say to Bruce Gilden is “I love Magnum!”

“Why in the world would you like Magnum?” he asks.

“Well, I love their photographers.”

“But there are so many.”

“Right now some friends and I are obsessed with Alex Webb.”

“Alex,” says Gilden. “Yes—Alex is a good friend of mine.”

“He’ll be here in New York on Wednesday.” This is the second silly thing I say to Bruce Gilden.

“What do you mean ‘he’ll be here’? He lives in Brooklyn!”

He asks about what I do. When I tell him I write fiction but am currently writing up an interview I’d done with a Moroccan writer, he asks for the name and then the age, and nods. “My wife knows him,” he says. “She’s from Morocco.” Then he says, “I love to read, but I don’t read fiction anymore. The difference between photography and fiction for me is this: I understand photography’s history so intimately that I can tell right away if you’re imitating somebody or trying to expand your own horizons; with literature, it’s more straightforward—do I like it or not? I’ve noticed, though, that mystery writers are copying Henning Mankell these days.”

As Gilden is talking, his student, Jeff, steps in front of two young women with his camera and snaps a shot, Bruce Gilden–style. They scream and run off, laughing. I have to suppress my giddiness at what I’d just witnessed, and try to pay attention to Gilden. He’s saying something about nonfiction: he recommends Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Lincoln, he isn’t so impressed with Peter Hessler, and can I please suggest a Jonathan Spence title.

“Bruce Gilden–style” means that you stick your camera and flash right in the subject’s face, fast, then step away just as quickly.

A year ago I’d watched a brief video of Gilden on YouTube, done by WNYC. Many of the video’s commenters found his method to be off-putting, and I remember thinking I could never be so bold to photograph somebody that way. If the person doesn’t spot me, I’m grateful, but if they do, then I acknowledge this invasion of privacy with a friendly smile and thank-you wave. Also, I tend to shoot from a good distance, though not because that’s my “method” but because I’m too shy to get closer.

Watching Jeff tackle Gilden’s style, though, was illuminating. Main Street is luxuriously four or five lanes wide, perfect for cars and buses, but the sidewalks are congested with hawking, haggling, leaflet-handing, grocery-shopping, snot-spitting Chinese. A man with a camera, to the passerby, is merely a tourist; everybody is too busy thinking about their destination or the next meal to care that their space had just been invaded. In Chinatowns—in cities in general, I guess, but in Chinatowns in particular—space is always being invaded anyway.

Gilden says, “I don’t have a website, I hate the Internet. But yeah, those YouTube videos of me are enough for now.”

He leaves the conversation for a moment to tell Jeff that this spot is gold, to keep on shooting. I watch Jeff with one eye, how he steps into the stream of people, and Gilden with the other.

“We’re in Flushing because Jeff likes to shoot Orientals,” Gilden explains. Jeff is Asian and from California. “Jeff laughs whenever I use the word ‘Oriental.’ I don’t mean anything by it. But if I were more tired, which I will be in a minute, I’d probably say something worse. I’m just like that. Anyway, he’d wanted to shoot the Memorial Day parade, and I said there aren’t any Orientals there, we should go to Flushing. So here we are.”


Here is a photograph of a little girl from the night before, also on Main Street. She’d been sitting on a tall stool in a bright pool of light—a perfect shot—but by the time I uncapped my lens she’d flitted away. When I got closer, I saw she was hiding behind this bit of wall, so I took aim.


May 28, 2011

I prefer Y to shoot the back of my head.

When we say “Let’s go shooting,” we mean what you think we mean.

Three officers near Times Square were decked out in helmets, bulletproof vests, and AK-47s. A fourth one stood with a German shepherd off the curb. The dog growled when I stared too long. I laughed, safety on my side.

One officer wore his beard in a most un-officer way. I wanted to openly admire, but he kept his gaze ahead of him, his stance professional and stern. After the “not guilty” verdict of the cops who’d raped the girl on East Thirteenth Street, perhaps this officer was doing double moral duty. All the officers must be. They all better be.

Times Square was a colorful, Fleeting madhouse: ROTC teenagers swaggering about in braces and zero percent muscle tone, Marine wannabes competing for a pull-ups record.

Pockets of light casting pockets of shadow witnessing pockets of solitude guarding pockets of secrets.

THE END IS NEAR, read one sign.


Photographs earlier that day: of Hiroshima by a secret U.S. surveying team a few weeks after the bombs hit; of Holocaust refugees crowded into too-small ships, kept away from safety on orders from Britain; of a baby wearing a Klan uniform, but then, in another room, of a tiny terrier in midair.

Through the window I watched a man having trouble sticking his eyelashes on a woman. She kept still, her hair in rollers. The mirror beside them revealed her ecstasy. I was ecstatic for her. Then I was shot.

May 25, 2011

Here are two photographs from my jaunt into Flushing Meadows-Corona Park on Tuesday afternoon.

The last time I’d set foot in the park was many moons ago during one of the countless Asian arts festivals where I had to dress up in a cheap traditional dance costume and parade around with pink feathery fans. On Tuesday there were no other Asians except for me as well as a group playing volleyball in a lonely corner. Everybody else was Mexican, Ecuadorean, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and they all wore soccer jerseys, the two-year-olds, too, and the three-year-olds, even the dogs that had been let loose to chase a ball.

I’d spent the past three days on the couch with a sudden and painful cold, and that morning several things converged to force me out the door: it was sunshining; I was feeling marginally better; a friend, excited about a reading that night, urged me to attend it with her; I’d looked at a map of the park the night before and, though I’d known that my father went there every morning for tai chi, was amazed that it was within walking distance.

In the park I took off my leggings. I snapped photographs. I watched soccer teams doing drills. Preparing for what games? I didn’t know. I could have asked the two gentlemen in the photograph who were seated on the bench with their backs to me; each had separately turned around to wave hello. This shot is imperfect. I am still terrible with understanding how light affects a photograph. I’d wanted to establish a layered busy-ness, because I’d had Alex Webb‘s gorgeously layered shadow plays in mind, thanks to Y. But I still don’t know what I’m doing.

That night I got home a little after midnight. Walking through Flushing at this time of night is an exercise in time-light suspension. Main Street is bright and dark at the same time, giving the impression that you’re on an abandoned movie set that’s been taken over by a loosely organized, hungry gang. I started shooting the darkness using the flash, something I’d been meaning to try since March when I saw Strange Evidence, an exhibit of Mark Cohen’s photography from the past forty years set in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he’d used flash and frequently shot the torsos of his subjects, their heads cropped from the frame. The result is both eerie and sublime. Below is my amateur effort: Main Street, Flushing, 12:37 a.m. I’d forgotten about the guillotine effect, though.

May 22, 2011

The library a few blocks away is my primary source of comfort in Flushing. A close second is the Golden Mall, a food court that’s been favored by the press for Xi’an Famous Foods, which in the space of two years has opened two or three other locations in Manhattan and soon another in Brooklyn. Their pork sandwiches had cost two dollars three years ago and are now a whopping two-fifty. Across the aisle, just wide enough to squeeze through a hand truck carting boxes of beverages—and yet people will try to pass through two at a time—is a spot selling hand-pulled noodles, where a thin man with dyed-copper hair twists noodle shapes from a large mound of dough. Today I’d hoped to find a chicken soup variety, but they serve only beef and lamb, so I ordered beef noodle soup, as well as a side order of dumplings. This is a meal that feels like home—MSG-laden, simple, fast, cheap. Flushing itself does not feel like home, however. I have not found a routine here. My parents will be back from Taiwan in the first week of June, and I will not have ventured past Main Street or beyond the Golden Mall and the library. My reason for this is very specific, but I will have to let go of the reason soon, since it is now spring, and spring leads to many new possibilities, both internal and external. I don’t know how my neighbors feel about this season. I don’t know much about them at all except that they push past you without a glance or stand in the middle of the flow of sidewalk traffic lost in thought, probably about money or the next Botox session. It’s easy to be closed off here, but I can’t decide if the structure of Chinatown is the main factor or something else far more mundane. If an immigrant has no friends upon arrival in America, as had been my mother’s case thirty-seven years ago, during which she was eight months pregnant with me and could rely only on my father and sister for company, what does he or she do to feel at home? One focuses on work, on making money. My own isolation here has been manageable because I am not an immigrant. Yet isolation is isolation. I’d got it into my head that I could translate, or transport—some kind of prefixed “trans-“—all the lovely lessons I’d learned last year about strangers into this place, but the failure, though predictable, has been astronomical. In a letter to my parents, which I’ll have them read when they’ve recovered from their jet lag, I am writing about metaphysical isolation in as plain terms as possible. Whether this idea will annoy them or draw them in doesn’t matter; the letter is meant to create the stage for dialogue, storytelling, mythmaking.

May 21, 2011

This is a 7 train that runs express every morning and evening during rush hour. When the red square changes to a green circle, that means the train is running local. But wouldn’t you think that the express would be represented by a circle? A circle is a continuous curve with no sharp corners to brake at, while this square calls to mind an uncompromising diamond. When you look out the window in the morning, the hard edges of the city are unavoidable. Crass advertisements, gray neighborhoods, a distant Manhattan that flaunts its Oz-ness. At night, these edges disappear to make room for lights—red, green, yellow, piercing white in neon or fluorescent. The shape of a city is reflected in these different times of day. The shape of a city is reflected in the shapes of its streets, its inhabitants, its various brightnesses and darknesses. The shape of a city is the shape of a subway seat, angled, bucket-like, segmented, sequestering.

May 20, 2011

On Tuesday I attended a lecture by Xu Bing of the round glasses, narrowed consonants, and found art fame, though “found art” is too simplistic a term to describe his work. Yes, he uses discarded materials picked up from his surroundings—dust from the streets of New York City in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, for example, and his phoenix sculptures made up of construction debris—but these things, in being recalibrated while being reconstructed back into our day-to-day environment, acquire a loose, ethereal texture.

May I say that he is re-creating heaven using earth.

When I left the lecture, the fog had completed itself over the city. I was amazed to experience one half-truth and one full truth, both involving the found objects in my heart. This is why I love fog. We all become equally obscured by a palpable mist, as though magic, not rain, were threatening to fall. At the same time, clarity of both ourselves and the objects around us, the meanings both inside and outside, is attainable merely by sticking out our hand and continually feeling our way.

May 16, 2011

Surrounding me in the subway car are three readers: a Jodi Picoult, an H. G. Wells, and one avidly taking in corporate-business-speak. A woman’s bag resembles a cover from the Writings from an Unbound Europe series published by Northwestern University Press. The other day I saw a woman reading José Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey, and I’d had the urge to follow her from the subway onto Forty-second Street, to confirm whether she truly was the professor I’d imagined her to be during the ten minutes we’d ridden the N together. Two weeks ago I watched the film José y Pilar, which chronicled Saramago’s last years writing The Elephant’s Journey and his memoir Small Memories, as well as the exhausting touring he did alongside his inexhaustible wife to whom all his books are dedicated.

One afternoon I sat down at my desk composing a letter about César Aira to César Aira. No, the letter was to a friend, who in my head was named César Aira but who in reality is named something else, something equally concise and direct. Their literary sensibilities are close, at least in my eyes, and one night this friend and I walked twenty blocks discussing how Aira—specifically How I Became a Nun, whose young narrator is named César Aira—had affected us. I had seen her in my mind’s eye while I’d read Nun, not as somebody with whom I was having a conversation about the book but as a muse or as the inscrutable cipher. In this mind’s eye she had sat in a chair or on my shoulder and watched me read Nun. It was as though she were waiting for me to finish so we could have this conversation about it, though at the time she hadn’t yet picked it up, not until I had finished it and recommended it to her with warmth, confidence, and awe. Tonight I wrote to another friend a little about the value of such communication. There is communication in the gaze and in silence, no matter how structured or unstructured. A desire for narrative will always live, then, whether arising from Picoult’s world of domesticity, Wells’s moon-flying scientist, a businessman’s lingo, Saramago’s languorous journeys, or Aira’s multipled, multiplied, multiplicitied Césarita.

May 16, 2011

There is now a commute to consider.

At one o’clock in the morning, from Williamsburg I take the L to Sixth Avenue to transfer to the F. The F isn’t running at that time, however, so I have to return to the L for Union Square, where I transfer to the N. Then I miss Queensboro Plaza by one stop, having fallen asleep for a minute. At Thirty-third Street, I wait for the Manhattan-bound 7 for half an hour; the station is empty except for me and a man across the way speaking blusteringly into the pay phone, then after I’ve shut my eyes for another minute, listening to the bar’s voices directly below me, I find the man on my platform conducting a similar conversation with this side’s pay phone. Finally a 7 arrives, and I ride the one stop back to Queensboro Plaza, where a breeze keeps all of us company. When I get to Flushing, it is three a.m., and my head has completely emptied. Then inside the apartment, I put on A Tribe Called Quest and dance some more. Earlier that evening, we had danced to the music of not-too-engrossing sixties retro bands. Then I noticed a woman and a man sitting against the wall. She had been in one of the lesser-motivated bands, while he would DJ later. She expected a compliment, but he was the one who got it—I loved his studded hat. They sat for a portrait for me, and then I danced some more.

May 13, 2011

The Flushing branch of the Queens Library is all windows and gauzy curtains. From the outside, the vertical windows, bordered by a fluorescent-office green, are softened by the building’s oblong shape. Inside, I framed a woman who was on her cell phone.

The first thing I did on my first day there was get a library card. I borrowed three books of Chinese fables and myths. This concept of borrowing and due dates is familiar. Events at this library include readings by Queens poet laureates past and present, film screenings (tomorrow at 1 p.m., The Wedding Banquet), and seminars on urology (in Chinese). I smiled at all the librarians, who seemed startled by the attention, and then left to buy a two-dollar dinner. I’d overtipped the movers who’d helped me pack up my apartment earlier that day, so was heartened by the evening’s simple meal. Flushing is loud and dirty, and I’ll be alone here for another two weeks before my parents return from Taiwan.