I got a job. Night shift freight/stockroom for a grocery store. They gave me a week before my official first day to acclimate my schedule. So this week I’ve been getting up in the late afternoon to stay up into the wee hours. I finally go to bed around eight or nine in the morning. Sleep into the afternoon. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
I had to think of something to do. The first couple of days found me sitting on the computer all night, surfing the internet. The end of the internet is impossible to find, but I gave it a hell of a shot. But staring at the screen for eight hours wasn’t going to cut it. I had to get out. After that I spent a night or two in Seattle, looking for things to photograph. Shockingly, when one is alone in the city at night, photography takes a backseat to safety. Plus there is the cost of gas to drive down there. It’s only 35 miles, but, hey, broke.
So tonight around 1:00am I decided to walk around my small town with a camera. I gathered my camera bag, threw on an extra hoodie. Stuffed some business cards in my pocket, along with a small can of pepper spray for encounters with unmentionables. I headed out the door and into the night, eastbound down long Columbia Street.
It’s amazing how loud your footsteps can be when the noise of civilized life finally dies down. Random patches of loose pea gravel make scuffing sounds under my shoes. I can also hear the soft clacking of the plastic buckle on my camera bag as I walk. Beyond that, there is nothing to hear except for late night motorists gunning engines through traffic lights very occasionally. Someone has been on their front step, smoking, and they let the screen door slam when they go back in. Where are they going? To bed? Or back to the tv? Is there anyone in there with them to keep them warm? Or do they feel a chill of loneliness as I do?
After crossing a connecting street heading south, I turn east again to walk down Main Street. Small town Main Street. Doubly lit with harsh, orange streetlights and newly mounted strings of Christmas lights. A single traffic light that sits between two blocks of businesses. I wonder if anyone lives above these stores. I knew a guy once who did that. Lived above a flower shop. It was the most romantic way to live I could think of back then. Not romantic in the sense of love. Romantic like memories of four-engined airplanes buzzing you slowly across the Pacific.
There is no one around, so after I extend my tripod and connect the camera and remote shutter release, I step into the middle of the street. Snap a pic or two. Carry the whole affair back to sidewalk. Put tripod and remote shutter release away. Walk 1/2 a block, do it again. There is a small gathering at the 7-Eleven, socializing and smoking outside the large, brightly lit windows. Two or three cars. I have a hangup about taking pictures of people, so I keep moving. There’s a run-down beauty salon, closed for the night. I wonder what stories these people have to tell. What do they talk about in the salon all day? I could sit there with a notebook. What tales are being written on the dirty sidewalk in front of 7-Eleven? Who is angry? Who is content? Who will go home with who?
Up the hill north now, to the railroad tracks and a grain elevator. I spend a few minutes here, snapping a track hoe and some rail cars. A homeless man on a bicycle appears, pedaling almost directly toward me. At the last minute he sees me and steers clear. I’m both relieved and disappointed. Talk to me. Tell me anything.
Past the railroad tracks I walk another block until I’m at the highway that bisects town. I turn left and begin the back side of the loop that will take me closer to home. Do I want to go home? 15 minutes to the next turn. I don’t have to decide just yet. Here is a car lot, brightly lit with four-wheeled lozenges of red, silver, blue. Another tripod setup. Another shot in the middle of a deserted highway. To the sidewalk again and further, further, past the neon-lit steakhouse and the run-down motel. The motel charges contemporary rates same as any, but doesn’t mention the train tracks directly behind them in their advertising literature. All those bodies inside, sleeping in crumpled, not-so-white-anymore sheets. Dreaming of places where there are no trains.
Denny’s. Yellow and red quadrilateral sign made of pure hope. Salvation to churchgoers in the morning and drunks at night. I didn’t think of it until I was five blocks past. I should have gone inside. I’d been hungry anyway. Hungry after Thanksgiving dinner eaten only just this afternoon, you ask? I must’ve stretched out my stomach. But I didn’t go inside. Not because I didn’t have money. I just didn’t want to talk to people. Chris, the thing you fear the most is the cure! I know. I know. I tell myself I know but it doesn’t make it any easier. I’d had an idea–the five blocks late one–to go inside. Sit down. Order a side of toast and some decaf coffee. Offer to buy another patron their breakfast if they’d let me shoot their picture. Slide my business card across the table and through the inevitable wet spot where a Coke had been. I’m a freelance writer and photographer. Doing a project about small-town America. Do you mind if I take your picture? You know, if I do decide to make a book out of this, I’ll need you to sign a release. Would you? What are your names? What brings you here? Tell me your story. Was that Moons-Over-MyHammy any good? Scribble all this down in notebook to be added later. Try to look busy. Want desperately for them to ask me questions too.
But I don’t stop at Denny’s. I don’t walk inside. I don’t say hello. I keep on moving, making the final turn towards home. Crossing the tracks back the other way. Completing the loop. Whipping myself in punishment for my sins. Looking for another thing to lock inside my camera. Something to tuck away on the SD card, and equally on my mind, until I can examine it later. Pull it out into the light, put the thought into a chemical bath. See what develops. These are terrible puns for four in the morning.
The final stretch. There on the corner the house with the doberman and the bulldog who are always outside and who yell at me when I walk my own dog. Well, except for now, I guess, which is good because it’s 4:15 in the morning. Sleep well, little doggies. Back on to good old Columbia Street, where the puddles in the parking lot for the old school track are perfectly still, like mirrors laid on the gravel. Where Angry Jeep Guy (TM) lives in a small, stonefaced bungalow fronted with thick deciduous trees that block the view. His Jeep is copper-colored and has custom LED lights that flash randomly at all times. Even now. Sporadically flickering as if the electrical system is having a seizure. I shouldn’t joke about seizures but I have them myself. I leave him behind, to pass the Spanish Catholic church. In a few hours its bells will toll, still rung by hand by a couple of children I’ve seen report dutifully to pull the ropes on weekends. They’ll be riding horses and selling tamales in the parking lot there again. I need a picture of that. No one would believe me otherwise.
And finally, finally, onto my street proper. The dead end. The dead have risen. The dead ask me why I let these things go, these fears and worries that eat at me. Fix them. Fix them now. There is too little time, they say. Before it’s too late, they say. I take the two steps to my front door. Slip the key in quietly. Push door ajar. Drop camera onto sofa. I say I’ve done enough tonight. I say I will do it tomorrow. No one answers back.