Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Laid Bare 

Weegee: Murder is My Business. Image via The International Center of Photography

I don't understand the incoherency of the mentally ill. I don't understand the hunger of the addicted. I don't understand the entitlement of the affluent. I don't understand the hate of the angry. I don't understand the broken hearts of the dispossessed and the lonely. I don't understand the stupidity of the dullards, nor the pain of the afflicted.

I also don't understand the kindness of the open-hearted nor the awe of the open-minded. I really don't understand those that see the beauty in the chaos. I don't understand the hope of the faithful. I don't understand the logic of the powerful or the economics of the monied.

I'm starting to think I don't understand this city.

Every time someone builds something up, someone else tears it down. Every time someone reaches out, someone else lashes out. Every time someone turns away, someone else stares intently. The place doesn't just have duality, it has modality; so many facets, constantly changing and in flux that the entire thing is a wobbling, spinning top.

For me this town and where I live in it, is too much. Too much of everything. Too many people, too many lights, too much darkened glass like one-way mirrors, too many sounds and too many smells. Recently I stupidly rode too far from the city hoping to find a park. I rode 65 Kilometres away and what struck me was the smell. I never escaped the stink of one of the various sewage treatment plants the city employs. It seemed no matter how far I went, I could still smell the stink of the city and the waste of its inhabitants.

Also, I never escaped the traffic. Everywhere I went, there were cars going somewhere. Angry, engine-revving drivers swerved and veered around me. At one point I rode through a suburb, full of cars and well kept lawns but where were the people? Inside those houses or maybe somewhere in their cars. That's what makes suburbs eery to me. All the signs of human life, but no humans; as if a hydrogen bomb had eviscerated everyone leaving only the buildings and cars. Surely, out there somewhere there is a happy medium between too many people and none at all?

I'm sure the city doesn't care if I don't understand it. I'm sure other people don't. Maybe what I don't get is that in the city it feels as though we live alone together, while in other family-focused suburbs perhaps, people live together alone. Where do we live together, together?

Here’s the thing: I’m a city booster. I believe in cities, or least I believe in the idea of them but I don’t understand them. I don’t expect to be understood.

The photo exhibit I saw this weekend was about a guy who did understand the city. Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, was an Austrian born, New York City raised photographer and photo journalist. His stark, crisp, high contrast black and white flash photography mostly captured violent crimes in the 40s and 50s New York, as well as the crowds of New Yorkers reacting to those crimes. Beyond tabloid press violence he also documented the city. This was not the New York of hipster-infested boroughs, with cool cafés and bistros, or of luxurious shops frequented by millionaires who think nothing of car services or bottle service. This was the Naked City. A city laid bare. A city of poor immigrants, crammed into tenement apartments, scratching at the hem of American society to make a better life or just to get by. I was struck by how grimy New York and its citizens appear in these photos. Kids with dirty faces and hands, wearing tattered trousers and old shoes, without socks. Amongst the crowds of crime scene onlookers were thin unshaved men looking vaguely bemused or bored at the sight of a well dressed, over weight mobster splayed awkwardly face down in a black puddle of his own viscera. Then there were the photos of Coney Island and the thousands and thousands who had gone to beach to escape the heat of the downtown core. It seems unbelievable that if you saw that many people at the beach you wouldn’t just turn around and go home.

Coney Island

How would you cope living amongst that many other people? It’s like you have to learn to live that way. I was just watching a video entry of another NYC photographer, who himself is a kind of proto-hipster version of Weegee, and while filming he had to move away from the window because a garbage truck was out on the street and he said as aside, “One thing I hate about New York is the noise pollution. There is constant noise.” Last night, on an episode of a popular sit-com, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, three friends drive to the countryside out of New York for a weekend getaway and one of the guys says, “What’s that smell?”, another answers, “Not urine. That’s the smell of the absence of urine!” So if we’re constantly under attack of lights, noise and the smell of urine why do we keep living in cities. My guess is everyone has a different answer or reason and that’s fine. Maybe I live in a city so that when I leave it, I can better appreciate the quiet and the absence of urine.

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