When I walked to get my film I noticed a girl crossing the street in front of me. I crossed with her, behind her. She had headphones on, which reminded me that I too had headphones and wouldn’t mind listening to the news. I have an FM transmitter in my mp3 player.
So when I crossed the street I took out my player, and put in the headphones. At this time the girl had stopped for some reason. Then just as I began walking, she began as well, still in front of me. We walked for several blocks. I was walking to get my film. She turned the corner and I followed her, i.e. this was the direction of the photo shop. She then walked into the parking lot the store was in. It was as if we were going to the same place. “Strange,” I thought, “Gunman takes several hostages in Amish school killing three and wounding several others,” said the news woman. “Several others,” I thought, “That’s pretty vague. Are they still trying to figure out who exactly was injured by the gunmen and who just ran into the wall in a flight of panic? And wouldn’t that flight of panic still be the result of the gunman and count as an injury caused by him? That’s the problem with the liberal media these days. They can’t take a direct stand on anything, not even the number of causalties caused by the paranoid delusions of an Amish man. What could be easier to take a stand on? Who could possibly object if the final count was a little off?”
She walked into the coffee shop right before the photo shop. I picked up my photos. They were bad. Most of them were of a kitchen sink and dirty dishes. One was of a ceramic coffee cup with marks of lipstick, another was of a dirty pot, another of the same ceramic cup in the dirty pot, the next distinguished itself from the previous by showing a blurred fly sitting on the rim of the pot, etc. I didn’t remember taking the photos, but I could imagine myself in a sudden wave of romantic appreciation for the simple things in life, taking twenty black and white photos of my brother’s dirty dishes. Mr. Cheng, the photo clerk, didn’t say anything when I handed him the new twenty dollar bill for his service. He silence embarrassed me. I imagined him looking over the photos to see if they turned out, rolling his eyes, and sighing. I wondered how many attempts at art this man has witnessed. But the subject of the photo shack operator has been scrapped by many authors before me. I’ll leave that one alone.
I have to admit that even though the photos themselves were terrible, despite the fact that I felt embarrassed for spending $10.78 to get them developed; the photos made me smile. They were simple, or just bad, but the person who took them really thought that at that moment the most beautiful thing in the world was a sink full of dirty dishes. I have noticed, as I grow older, that these moments become fewer and fewer. The romantic lens through which I saw the world at the age of 19 has been dirtied, and scratched, taken off, and forgotten. The lens I used now was better, it could do more things, represent the world in a more accurate way, but something was lost. As I thought about this metaphor I realized that I knew almost nothing about photography, and started to question whether someone who was a photographer would find my lens metaphor naive, or simply wrong.
I thought back to when I was 19. I didn’t have a girlfriend, and was constantly crashing on someone’s couch (I have to thank Paul and Sara for being particularly generous with their blankets and beer). My love life culminated in an unrequited infatuation with a girl who worked the check-out counter at the university library. But I truly did love her. Every piece of my space-time corpuscles knew it. I loved her so much that it didn’t even matter that she didn’t love me back. I could never love anyone that way again, not even her.
Of course, this sort of denial can be dangerous. For instance, my infatuation taught me how to maintain the course even when the course was obviously a really bad one. In future relationships this cost me dearly. I would show up on the door step of a girls house in the middle of January without calling, to have her new boyfriend answer the door and give me one of those “So you’re that guy” looks. I maintained the course time and time again when the course time and time again, and although this may be an admirable quality in a general or president it’s just plain pathetic when applied in courtship.
At at 22 I finally learned what most people learn at 16 –just because you love someone doesn’t necessarily mean that they will love you back. Or the revised version: Just because someone loved you in October doesn’t mean they are going to love you five months later on Valentine’s Day.
It is also at this age that I began to “change the lens” so to speak. I realized that I could sleep with someone and not have a strong emotional attachment. I learned that people really do want to be lied to, and that a little basic courtesy will get you a lot farther than a random act of kindness. As I learned these rules (which seemed to just be programmed into most people) I also felt my romantic ambitions begin to wear and fade. Suddenly I didn’t feel comfortable crashing on someone’s couch, eating strangers’ food, doing their dishes, and leaving a poem on their kitchen table with a basket of fruit I picked on my walk around the neighborhood. I slowly stopped giving people burned cds and books, and began picking up the tab.
Now looking back I realized that at the age of 19 I had sustained (maybe for too long) an approach to life that is completely impractical, pathetic, and well, magical. I was completely enamored with things like the changing of leaves. I could come to tears sitting under a tree thinking about photosynthesis while listening to Bill Evans or a solo by John Coltrane. What happened? Is it true that knowledge leads to disillusionment, and that not only does ignorance mean bliss, but also reverence and love?
I stood there on the corner looking intently at a blurry black and white close-up of an ant crawling along a spoon. “With elections just a month away how do you think voters are going to react to this new set of allegations? Well, Ron…” I turned off the radio and found a guilty pleasure –Kid A by Radiohead. I remembered the girl at the check-out desk that told me to listen to the album more carefully. I decided that instead of going grocery shopping, like a responsible adult, I would just get a burrito and read Eugene Ostashevsky’s Iterature instead of the articles for the translation seminar.
I got in line at the restaurant and noticed the girl from the street. She was standing in front of me. I studied her intently until she looked at me and seemed a little surprised. She turned around a little nervous and I remembered how I was accused of being a stalker when following around the girl at the check out desk, or another girl after a party. I smiled to myself, almost giggled. I’d done it again. I realized that looking at someone, paying attention to someone, loving them, is not something a person can just do –you need permission to love a person. A person isn’t a tree or a sink full of dirty dishes –a person doesn’t necessarily want to be loved or appreciated; most of the time a person just wants to be left alone. I guess this is why libertarians do so well, even though they are actually bad for the people who vote for them. On the surface everyone just wants to be left in their own world –to be allowed to exist like an autonomous city state. And it is only when we want something from someone, be it a few bucks or a hug, that we turn our attention outward.
I watched the girl make her order. When the cashier asked the girl to stay or go she hesitated, and then almost glancing over her shoulder she decided to stay. She took her number and sat down at a small table in the corner of the dim restaurant. I ordered a vegetarian burrito, but saw the cashier mark chicken. “Ve-gi-ta-ri-an,” I said slowly. “Que?” I blushed as I always do when I am confronted with my complete ignorance of Spanish. The girl looked at me from her corner. “That one,” I pointed to the little check box next to the word “vegetarian”. “Stay or go?” I glanced over at the girl, who was now reading. For some reason I was convinced she knew Spanish. She looked up and then quickly looked down at her book. “Stay or go, Sir?” “Go,” I said.