American Vignettes


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Main Streets

If you take a turn off the interstate and get lost in a small town you'll come to a main street and more than likely that main street will be full of empty store fronts. Driving around, time and again, I'd come across shuttered businesses and was saddened to see so many of them rotting away, covered by cobwebs and dust. At one time individuals kept these places up and supported their lives and families with them. Each store I came across was different and I loved finding new things, little pieces of personalities that made up the town, that made me feel like I was in in a new state, with its own distinctness and idiom. For the most part that has all been sucked up by Wal-Mart, and crushed by the recession, or to the ones who lost their businesses, depression, another aspect of American individuality gone.

This series began in Shendenoah, Pennsylvania as the first bailout was brewing--no doubt the men and women who owned these shops could have used some of that money. Looking into them I thought that they where the places that politicians use to buddy up to Joe the Plumber types; for the ones with the purse strings they exist only as carefully orchestrated backdrops and once they order their corn beef sandwiches are forgotten about. When it comes time for bailouts the guys in the suits give to guys in the suits and the ones in the flannel are foreclosed upon.


In Shenendoah I walked into one of the few businesses that was open at the end of Main Street, a barbershop. I spoke with the owner who opened the place up in the afternoons. He's been there for years. As evening approached aging men sat around and talked about life and what's going on in the world. I asked him what Main Street was like when he was a boy. He told me that he remembered the weekends most vividly.

On Fridays and Saturdays foot traffic would be so heavy that the sidewalks would overflow into the street and the only way to walk was in one direction, on one side. He said, as he became a teenager, he'd go there to flirt which was always difficult because there where so many people on the street. Due to the ongoing tide of people it made it almost impossible to stop or slow down and have much of a talk, but if one was diligent enough, he said, they could maneuver between the masses, duck into a storefront, wait until the one they where interested passed by and then try to catch their attention. All that is gone now, the streets are empty as they are in every other main street I walked or drove down.

The accompanying music was recorded in Mississippi on Yazoo City's Main Street. Someone on the city council thought that elevator music would make the street more pleasant. So far it hasn't lured many people.

America Abroad, Part 1

These photos where taken far away from the United States in Kosovo and Albania. This is one in a series that I'm calling America Abroad. On my travels I often witness the results of American policy and when there is a direct connection I'm going to include those stories in these postings.

Yesterday (3 December 2008), 93 nations agreed to ban cluster bombs at a conference in Oslo, Norway. Notably absent, was the United States along with Russia and China.

Cluster bombs maim and kill indiscriminately--their victims are usually civilians and most notably amongst them the young. Last January I saw the results of these bombs firsthand in Albania and Kosovo. In 1999 during NATO's war with Serbia all players in the region deployed land mines and dropped cluster bombs on the Albanian border. While those affected by mines in Kosovo received a high concentration of attention from the press, NATO and NGOs those affected in Albania, who are much poorer and in greater need of aid than their neighbors across the border, have gone largely unnoticed. During the past 9 years 272 people have been injured by mines and they have received only the most basic of care.

Highway 61, Mississippi

On highway 61, where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul, I decided to get lost. It was an off day and I didn't really know where to go or what to do, so I just drove and ended up in two small towns in the delta, Rolling Fork and Carey. Since I collected interviews for this piece I'll leave it at this and let the people of Mississippi speak for themselves.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hempstead Long Island, Chelsea, NYC

This series came about from one thing leading to another. I traveled to Hempstead, Long Island because immigrant laborers who once had jobs working cheap labor no longer even have that.

Starting at 6 in the morning workers from South and Central America start lining up in front of the Home Depot on Hempstead, Long Island with the hope that they will find work. In more recent times cars or trucks would pull up, the workers would crowd around the interested party and offer their services, prices would be negotiated and off everyone would go. Work for these men began drying up a couple of years ago and has hit this community particularly hard. Before many of us even knew there was a downturn, let alone a recession, these guys where already feeling it.

I chose Hempstead because that is where the last presidential debate was held. The debate's subject was domestic affairs, and while Hempstead boasts one the the largest immigrant communities in New York, neither the candidates nor Bob Schieffer, the moderator, thought it was worth talking about during the 90 minute debate. (Nor was it in previous debates.)

The day I photographed on Hempstead 4 out of 150 men where hired. It reminded me of the Grapes of Wrath. One young man, lonely, cold, desperate and missing home walked up to a police officer, told him he was here illegally and hoped that he would be arrested and then deported since he could not afford the $700 it takes to fly back home. The police officer said he would return and pick him up, but he never did. While most men do not go to such lengths they do head to the local soup kitchen.

As I was leaving the Home Depot parking lot for the kitchen I made the mistake of driving up to a migrant line to ask for directions. Not seeing that I was the one in the car in the car, I was quickly surrounded by 15 men all looking at me intently, eager to work. When they discovered that I only wanted directions they walked away dejectedly, their shoulders hanging down. One man knew where I wanted to go and so gave me directions, but as he did, he did so haltingly. He was so expectant for work, his hope so high, that I was afraid he'd break down in front of me, but he stayed strong , told me where to go and I drove off angered with myself that I was so stupid to cause such a stir when, for these men a car that slows down with its window lowering means one thing and one thing only: work. Work, so that they can send money back home to their families and pay for a shabby roof over their heads here, a place they don't want to be anyway.

After retuning from Hempstead I was curious to know how the crisis is affecting people living in New York City. Unless one looks for it, it's hard to tell that there's a recession (or even worse as it's now looking) underway in Manhattan. While restaurants are not as full as they once where, there's still quite a lot of business and vibrancy in the city. But in a city of 8 million plus there are a lot of people who cannot afford to eat.

To get a better understanding of where things stand, I visit the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen around this time of year annually. The kitchen is busy this year. On the morning I visited, the line of people waiting to be fed stretched around the block and continued for a long way down; a second barometer was that the line, in years past, would shorten within about an hour. This year it held steadily throughout lunch.

As of a year ago the kitchen was averaging about 900 people, that is now up to a median number of 1,100 a day and on the bad days when the month winds down and people are waiting for checks and benefits to come in, that number can increase to as many as 1,600.

The kitchen relies on donations and state money both of which are not coming in as they once did; with everyone cutting back the kitchen fears it too will have to cut services if not close down all together leaving thousands with nothing to eat.

Donations can be given here:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Haloween, Detroit, MI

In the midst of the crumbling buildings, the fear gripping the auto industry, and the general decay of Detroit, I happened upon a rave.

I was in Detroit on Halloween and ended up in an old factory building that used to make car parts and bodies and then B-17 wings for the bomber known as the flying fortress. The building, like many others in more alive cities, has been converted into lofts for artists, but on outskirts of Detroit it felt like an island onto itself, totally removed from the city and its ills, filled with children who where from the suburbs, educated and for the most part had someone to support them, unlike the vast majority who struggle for another day in the city proper.

That Halloween evening became a metaphor for me as to where we are at this point in history. Not long ago the building was used to actually produce something and employ people. On the night I was there it was nothing more than an empty space filled with a kind of grotesque decadence where young kids (I'd say the median age was 16) got drunk, flipped trough porn, danced alone in the corners and consumed consumed consumed with nowhere to go, nothing to do and not much of a way to pay for it.

(For full screen please hit the lower right button.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Detroit, MI

It's 5:54 am. I'm in a dark motel room in the Shorecrest Motor Inn in Detroit. Can't sleep. Despite the long day's drive and 5 beers last night the smoke from the previous guests in here makes it heard to breathe. Unlike all the corporate hotels that line the interstates, I feel the presence of other people in this motel. Years of guests' perfume lingers, I see traces of their outbursts left on the walls and indented in doors (the bathroom of the last place I slept in had a thin kind balsa like wood door that was left with a fist's crater in it) but most of all, it's the smoke from years of guests who have passed though that linger heavily. Who was smoking those cigarettes what where their lips doing, saying, concealing, revealing, desiring, fearing?

This room embodies the essence of Detroit which I had hoped to escape at least through sleep, but the smoke woke me. In this room Detroit creeps in through every crack. It flows through the tap where fetid water flows, its metallic pollution wafts through the cracks of the window, swppes in under the bottom of the door, it clings to my clothes.

My clothes smell of shuttered factory plants, still smoldering burnt down houses or abandoned ones, bacon grease, butter, corn oil from greasy spoons, industrial cleanser picked up from the bathroom in the two motels I've tried to sleep in--it's a heavy duty cleanser that looks like pink Pepto Bismol and smells like bleach covered up by a fake strawberry citrus blend and instead of covering up the grime embedding itself in the fat that has picked up all the other industrial particulates that surrounded me.

In the darkness of the room abstracts of the foreclosed, burnt and empty homes are in my thoughts. Detroit is full of these forlorn structures. After years of factory closings that's all that's left of the city. A singed shell that was once called the Paris of the West. Earlier this evening I had hoped to find a club, a decent restaurant to dine in, but there's so little. So, what to do except drive around? Against my imploring friend's wishes (carry a gun, watch out for people sucking on a crack pipe while driving through an intersection while you have the green, beware of carjackings, etc., etc., etc.) I decided to drive through this empty town.

By seeing Detroit this way I feel that it is one of the truest ways to convey the city since so much is seen though the car's window. The only way I can really grasp the spectral loneliness of the place are through these blurry photos.

(For full screen please hit the lower right button.)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

November 4, 2008, Harlem, NY

Hihi all,
This blog has been a long time in coming and with the election over wanted to get this up sooner rather than later, so apologies for the roughness of the site. For the past 3 months I've been traveling the United States, from route 61 in Mississippi to the burnt out shell of a city in Detroit. While I'm elated that we have such a new and energetic opportunity with the change of White House the issues that Obama faces are immense. Those stories will be forthcoming soon, but for the moment, first elation in Harlem.

Let America Be America Again
by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!