B.A. Van Sise
DEDICATED FLASH: THREE SNAPSHOTS
THE NIGHT SHIFT
I may be the only New Yorker who’s ever once said this, but I like Times Square.
No, I don’t like it for the same reasons as the tourists—I prefer, well, its dark corners.
That hasn’t always been my emotion about it—I have now and have always had the sharpest of Gotham elbows—but at night, I like the lights and I like the energy. As an avid people-watcher it’s interesting to watch the endless stream of blissed-out, drunken space cadets who can’t tell their asses from their elbows and don’t seem to mind.
A few months ago, two of my Italian nieces were staying with me for a few weeks and we ended up in Times Square. I’ve been waiting from that day to this to tell you about it.
From the moment they’d arrived, they’d been aching for the notorious American junk food: coffee from Starbucks, burgers from McDonald’s, and chicken from America’s most confederate of colonels. And thus, on one Saturday night, we ended up right on Broadway, in Times Square.
Now, the New York of Mr. Draper and Ms. Maisel was never mine, not really, but I think Broadway still appeals because it is the living heir to Damon Runyon’s New York: a city of grifters, hustlers, fast talkers, perverts, attempted perverts, fallen aristocrats, flim flam men, buttonmen and button salesmen trying to blow off steam on a Friday night. Nicely-Nicely and Sky Masterson are gone, but it’s still the scuttling, dirty, striving throb of hucksters that made Jimmy Breslin and, yes, Donald Trump, and I love them for their honest base humanity, those over-sexed, under-slept moving masses, and whenever I get out-of-town guests I love to show them off to each other.
If one squints while walking down certain sections of Broadway, it’s easy to imagine it not a living thing but a tattered, oily postcard sent from the past, of a street scene printed in three full colors, with no return address, no stamp, and one brief message: wish you were here.
That being said, the heart of Broadway isn’t Broadway, and it certainly isn’t the shows. It’s the McDonald’s.
When I was really young, New York was a different place to whose soiled roots it seems now to be returning; Times Square was where one went to get drugs and sex, and not to see a rapper dressed as Alexander Hamilton jumping around a stage eight times a week. There was a McDonald’s, though, and I remember going. At that time, you ordered from a person in a paper hat, hidden behind a two-inch thick pane of bulletproof glass—installed, no doubt, to keep the wrong hands off the french fry fortune.
Today, it’s a dazzling, glowing, neon utopia of computerized edibles, an island of uncommon convenience. My nieces were begging to go and, after I bought them some ice creams mixed on cold stone, we slowly made our way over there in a huge Saturday throng, our bodies the mortar between thick bricks of Chinese tourists.
Now, I’d be very unlikely to eat at a McDonald’s—being a reasonably vain man, I’m afraid of becoming one of those doughy finance bros that seem to populate the rest of Manhattan, and it’s got too much salt, too much fat, too much sadness. Everybody leaving a McDonald’s looks like their driver’s license photograph.
It was what they wanted, though, so we got in line behind a group of Salvadoran women taking a break from work. They were dressed in big mascot costumes—two women with their Elmo heads under their arms, the third with her oversized Frozen snowman head sitting on the floor between her little feet.
To the right of them, largely unregarded, was the single largest pool of blood I’ve ever seen. And, it being New York, nobody much seemed to care as a small Latin woman lazily pushed an old rope mop through it, not so much cleaning it as moving it around. Decanting it.
I’m not exaggerating. It was a tremendous puddle, an absolutely shocking scene. I can only assume a man spontaneously exploded, like in one of those Kung Fu movies, if a Kung Fu movie had a wife and mother who’ll miss it terribly.
Nobody seemed to care, to the point that I wondered if I had the wrong idea; it’s nominally a restaurant, of course. They make sundaes here—did someone spill the strawberry syrup? Literally all the strawberry syrup? I was writing the little joke right there on the spot—Sundae ruins Saturday—when one of the nieces spotted the stream.
The four of us, newly self-appointed detectives, followed the stream of blood: thick and spattered in the first feet, and then turning into a thin, long trail that lead back the long corridor towards 41st Street, roughly sixty feet where it veered hard to the left, into the men’s room.
In front of the men’s room was a seventeen-year-old boy, in his McDonald’s uniform, his back pressed against the door and looking like he was having the worst day of his life thus far, which in fact he probably was.
My nieces were very concerned that, on their third day in the new world, I had escorted them to a murder scene.
We waited there a few minutes—I admit, mostly because I, my camera in hand, was waiting for some scene out of a Hemingway story, for the door to swing open, dumping out stabbéd Belmonte, honest and true and brave, and dying, clutching the new window in his abdomen.
In ten minutes, the door never budged.
We left the scene with the poor burger kid still backed up against that door, as another burger kid tenuously shuffled over.
“Hey, Ricky,” he said just above a whisper. “How you holding up?”
Ricky glared back. “I swear,” he said. “Every. Single. Saturday.”
I began the Camino de Santiago, the holiest and oldest continuous route of Christian pilgrimage, from a Jewish synagogue.
It seemed only fitting, with what’s been going on in America, and also because, well, as a man who isn’t Christian and whose earliest maternal ancestors were Jews expelled from Spain, I honestly find some pleasure in the poetry of it.
When I did the camino two years ago, trekking across Spain under the flimsy and fraudulent guise of a photography assignment, I frequently opined on a theory I still hold: that everybody you meet on this ancient road will, like I did at that time, tell you one motive for their journey while secretly hiding another. I interviewed several dozen pilgrims and, without exception, found after two tipples that behind every devout claim of faith is usually a broken relationship, an emigrated child, a dead parent, a third year without a job, always a pain, a burden, a harrowing hell of worry.
That being said, it’s a lovely, wonderful journey, full of charms, niceties, pleasantries: with the fundamental mixture of limerence and sadness held by all intimate strangers, and the sort of chatty, shallow friendships that in normal life last the length of a train ride. Every pilgrim on these country roads greets all the others with the same greeting: buen camino. Have a good walk.
I couldn’t tell you why I’m doing it this time. Not out of some sense of crisis, if I’m honest, nor of any particularly philosophical, emotional, or creative angle either. When I hobbled into Santiago the last time, covered in mud and rippled with blisters, I swore I’d never, ever, ever do it again and then not a year later found myself itching, constantly, to stretch my legs. A year after that, and I’ve got a twelve-pound backpack, a tree branch for a walking stick, and a big floppy hat as I stand in front of a Jewish temple in a middle class, middle income, middling neighborhood on the outskirts of Oporto.
The night before, I’d met Hugh, one of the few—maybe the only—true Catholics I’d ever met on either of my journeys on this Vatican-blessed yellow brick road. A 67-year-old retiree from Britain, Hugh had taken his teacher’s pension and immigrated to cheaper, tax-free Portugal. He began the Camino from his front door a hundred miles south.
He lives with his wife in an oversized house—easy to do when you’re paid in pounds in a country that lives on pennies—and mostly enjoys country strolls and an endless wealth of visits from the grandchildren. Hugh was born Protestant and English, and we chat at length about his trip on the Camino to grow deeper into the Catholicism he found when he married his wife five decades ago.
I don’t envy him, searching for salvation in this secular age: who, ever, could plumb for depth in our current puddle?
But still, he walks.
He’s got a gentle way about him—he wears shorts, black socks, and the accent and mannerisms of a man who yearns to return to his own time, if it ever existed. He is always, but only slightly, slouched, with a high hairline and small eyes close together, giving him a sort of uncle’s resemblance to the British polemicist John Oliver, and even after five years in Portugal cannot seem to pronounce a single word of its language. It’s clearly off-putting to the Portuguese, but plainly amusing to anybody with less skin in the game.
In the length of a day, I adore him.
We chat a lot about my father, four years his senior, who couldn’t make the trip and whose absence I feel acutely. We talk about the trips he’s taken, the same tiny dots in Africa we’ve been to, what it’s like to miss red wine, which stories of the saints are the most fun. Passing an absurd mural, we joke about its Roman centurion, his spear deep into a nonplussed Christ while his free arm grips a shield covered in what can only be described as rococo smiley faces.
I’m relieved to meet somebody doing this at face value, without self-deception or ulterior motive and, yes, we form an easy friendship. The camino is something that people do together alone, and I’m happy to bump into him several times a day on our twenty-mile walk. He stops at every church we pass: on the way to the grocery store, he finds a little roadside shrine the size of a dinner plate, inside it a painting of the Virgin Mary holding a bald, aging infant Jesus who looks like he has an ex-wife and a mortgage. Hugh gestures a cross over his chest, says a little prayer while I wait patiently behind him, and then we go on our way. We buy spaghetti and red wine.
In the morning, as I pack my bag to leave, he wishes me the traditional greeting—have a good walk—and then, meekly, coughs blood into a red-soiled handkerchief.
I am a photographer by profession and, as a daily challenge, I make one photograph, just one photograph, on 35mm film every day. I allow myself no do-overs and no second chances.
It’s a constant exercise which forces me to make wagers on my each and every moment—a split second decision on whether any one thing will be the most exciting of my day. Is something better coming? Or is that all there is? Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes I end up scrambling at the sunset to find something, anything, that might be worthy. The photographs I’ve missed in this absurd philosophical project have become, to me at least, more memorable than the ones I’ve actually made. At some point in history, I imagine, some old woman has watched her son sworn in as President, all the while quietly thinking about the daughter she lost fifty years earlier. It’s like that. There’s no doubt that the constant threat of undocumented better moments has gotten me to feeding my already thriving superstitions with some illiberality.
There’s been a thirteen-story building noisily going up across the street from me for what seems to me like no less than seventy years, an endless pulse of jackhammers and rescinding trucks going beep, beep, beep while I’m trying to sleep at the open window facing it. The building’s almost ready for delivery and the laborers, after years of lazily working on a property nobody seems to much care about, have gotten even lazier still: mostly just milling about, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee from the cart. I never hear them whistling at women, but I hate them so I like to pretend they do nevertheless. On my way to the subway, two of the workers got into a banal, physical tussle right there on the sidewalk. I made my one and only daily photograph, of this, and then put away my camera, before going on my way to eat.
At breakfast with a client, I asked if it’d be alright for us to take a table by the window. I live a life of light, and I enjoy people-watching. The soft, diffused light that comes through windows is gentle, kind, and on cloudy days like this one I like to daydream of a different life where everybody is beautiful, rested, on their way up.
At the table behind us, pressed against the window in the softest light, are two women: obviously a couple, both wearing wedding rings, both in their late 50s. Conveniently for the story, and even more conveniently actually true, one is a brunette, the other blonde. All the tables in this restaurant are dark wood, the sort you’d see in boardrooms and not bright, eccentric cafés like this one, and the servers flitting about are wearing downright severe black aprons. All the lady servers are doing that thing where they put their hair up into a loose bun, a pencil through it, that makes them look like they failed out of secretarial school and ended up here. The one male server has a man-bun into which he’s put a pink chopstick.
The women at the table behind us, for their part, are elegantly dressed; the brunette, closer, is stout and set in a blue blouse, ill-fitting and loose but with a pretty pattern reminiscent of Japanese prints; the blonde, taller in stature and a bit more formal in bearing, has a black turtleneck on; it reaches too high, running up the bottom of her chin, and looks suffocating from a distance. Her long hair isn’t actually blonde, anymore, per se, but this sort of distinguished salted yellow that’s naturally faded into a dustier, toasted almond color. At the side of her mouth are the telltale little creases of someone who for many years smoked, just a little, but now does not.
Set next to the blonde are a set of three suitcases, small, medium, and large, stacked neatly into an ascending order.
They’re having a sad conversation I cannot hear. An exceptionally sad conversation I cannot hear. One’s got a benedict she’s barely touched, the other a waffle she’s devoured. It’s easy for even the furthest viewer to see their conversation, to imagine their story up until now: this is an old relationship, one well-known to most people. They met decades ago, an exciting love in an exciting time—especially for them. It was lovely, it was love. They came into each other’s lives, they built a life of their own together, and then one day, they just became too familiar. They grew old, they grew bored. Life, for all its beauties, is built on eroding soil, love, for all its beauties, is built on eroding soil, and one day they became two people, sleeping alone together.
In their faces, it was easy to see all of it, the deep, old kinship between them, the homes they’ve built in each other’s hearts, the doors falling off the hinges, the worn carpet and the dirty windows. The brunette picks at her breakfast, the blonde picks at her collar.
They look into each other’s eyes, a long, pregnant pause, and the brunette sighs. A single tear falls from the blonde’s left eye, and barely seen at that angle another sinks from the brunette’s right. In the same motion, they both lift a single sideways pointer finger and drag it up the other’s cheek, collect the tear onto the finger. The blonde slaps it off her hand onto the table, and they both laugh at the gesture.
“Well, I guess it’s time,” she says. They ask for the check, which comes, and is paid.
She gets up, collects her suitcases, stacks the small onto the medium, puts the handles into her hands, turns her head softly, turns her body with great pomp and begins to walk away, the brunette still sitting.
“HEY,” she yells loudly across the room, getting everyone’s attention, and the blonde turns around.
The brunette’s voice cracks. “I hope you love France, too.”
B.A. Van Sise is an internationally-known photographer and the author of the visual poetry anthology “Children of Grass.” His visual and written work has previously appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Washington Post and Buzzfeed, as well as major museum exhibitions throughout the United States. www.bavansise.com.