018: May 28th

I don’t want to spend this Friday night

Like I had to spend last Friday night

I don’t want to spend this Friday night

Dying by the record machine 

“Friday Night” by House of Heroes

[Let’s all pretend I posted this on May 28th and not in September, after a summer of nothingness filled by everything unimaginably bad in the world. I wrote it back in May, but ya know, 2020.] 

Well yikes. Today marks ten years since my final day in my previous career. I walked away from a promising career in retail management, an incredibly toxic and unhealthy lifestyle, but one that gives an appearance of material good satisfaction. The general understanding is that retail is built on the backs of low wage earners, and while that is true, but the first true backbone of the brick and mortar exploitation business is the field managers, who are groomed with promises of big salaries and even bigger bonuses. Not like hedge fund bonus lifestyles, but for a lot of middle America, staring down 6 figures buys a lot of pseudo self worth. A lot of people have shitty retail or service jobs growing up, so when you dangle the idea that you can affect change in the building while being paid a handsome salary, you tend to buy in to their ideas. Basically you are sold a bill of goods stating that if you work hard enough, you can make retail less shitty, and you’ll get double or triple minimum wage for your 80 hour a week stresses.

I certainly bought into that idea. “Everything sucks, but it will suck LESS if I am in charge, and I can make more money” was one of my mantras in my early 20s. It worked. I moved up from minimum wage to being the point person for a 4 million dollar business in a few years. And that was satisfying, for a moment. I successfully navigated every store I touched through the retail crash of 08, beating numbers and projections in ways no one else was doing at the time. I was the only leader in my company’s Eastern territory that earned a performance bonus through the disaster that was the business world in 2008. 

Then there was that day in Philadelphia. I finally got into the room with a group of peers, and the rose colored glasses shattered. They were all twice my age, and they all despised everything. The job. Their bosses, their employees. I spent a lot of time speaking with these folks, and the true existential depression of their situations was clearly evident. This was not water cooler commissary about circumstantial grievances. This was being 50, 60, 70 years old, and having regret pump through every vein in your body. This was the evidence of a life led via poor choices and not taking chances. 

A week later I gave my notice. I had no real idea what I was going to do for money, I just knew I couldn’t live my life in a 20,000 square foot box for a few decades. 

A few weeks later I walked out of that job, ate lunch at Random Shopping Center Steak Joint #67, toasted some pals who had been in the trenches for the last few years with me, and then drove two hours north to shoot an amateur MMA show. 

There are few things more intoxicating than the pavement with yellow lines down the center. Maybe man is drawn to that pattern because in a way it matches a woman’s long legs leading to the motherland we men search for every day after puberty. A hint at what lies beyond the reach, just down the pathway? A reason must exist why the road is as much a comfortable home as a woman’s bosom. 

The road and the experience of existing on it is one of the most romantic, and truly lustful, vices I think I am willing to admit to. A pure joy of the entire experience of travel. The chaos of walking up to the car in a parking lot, tossing my accoutrements in the passenger seat, collapsing my body into the command post. A proper driver’s seat holds you like your favorite mistress. Tightness right on your hips, freedom for your legs to move and give power to the dance. The window down to allow air to kiss your face. The thrill of turning the key and hearing the machine roar to life. 

Many a word has been written about the sound of engine in front you at this time. For me, besides the breath of life that creates the slight wobble of the arm letting you know it’s awake, the sound that brings the closure of the first act of the road play, is the radio. 

Every car radio has its own personality. Again we return to the relationship metaphor, the best car rides are with a radio you have gotten to know over many hours. You have shared multiple emotions with, from shouting for joy at an enthusiastic chorus to hitting that one line that needs to be screamed (“SPACE LORD MOTHER FUCKER!”) To crying at a song that hits low and hard. A proper radio has your fingerprints all over it, as you have touched every inch, and you know how to get it to do what you want. If a lover’s body knows your touch as well as your car radio, they are truly a blessed partner. There are buttons that bring back memories if you look at them too long. If you are reading this now, and can’t think of that one button that one time that brings a smile to your face, I am afraid to say you may have never experienced the truest Americana. 

In a perfect road engagement, your fingers know the spot on the radio, and finds its home quickly. The roar of the engine is overpowered by the airwaves of that song that breathes life into your vehicle. A few moments later, and your tires touch the highway pavement. The large breath of air you breath out is a satisfied sigh, you are home, you are free, you are on your way. 

And on that morning, driving to Hamburg with my camera in my back seat, a final check about to be deposited two weeks later, and idea and dream of paying next month’s bills with the results of my fingers pressing down on a shutter, I felt the romance of the road like I had never before. The highway was wider, the tires rode smoother, the air tasted crisper, and a handful of other overly used cliche freedom metaphors would be appropriately placed on that road trip’s itinerary. 

I can taste that road trip still. The images from that day were nothing special graphically, but they were infused with hope and emotion. I tried harder on those than I had tried anything in my life up to that point. They were fueled by a desire to tell the world of those punches under the bright lights, in an old agricultural hall, in a depleted coal town. 

I may have returned home at 4am that night, but I have never finished the journey. The car still roaming, camera upgraded to the passenger side, as it has fully engrained itself into my life. The radio still blaring, coating my ear drums with artistry and clever hooks. Staring out the window, looking for another story to tell, another picture to make.      

017: Misease [and Mystery Lights]

So I ended the last post with what I thought was a clever ending to a random Monday morning existential crisis blog, asking the world “what now?”

Well, turns out the universe was like, “How about this, dumbass.”

Let us all pretend the last 9 weeks have been filled with catching up on New Yorker articles, and not gorging on elemental comfort foods like Love and Hip Hop. The sad boys of the 60s played Dylan when pondering about Vietnam, now the depressed and downtrodden turn to Tiger King to pass the moments until the unavoidable. 

36 million are out of work right now. The country is in that weird spot when you accidentally miss your gear downshifting too fast and it makes that weird fucking noise that scares the shit out of you. We’re living in that weird screeching noise right now, and we don’t know if we fucked the transmission or not yet.

I literally don’t know what to say about living in the worldwide epicenter of a pandemic, a life event that will shape generations. I could speak about the horrors of waking up every morning, walking to the kitchen to make my coffee and hearing nothing but sirens. No construction noises, no homeless yelling, none of the stereotypical New York Lifescapes that make up our soundtrack pretty much 24/7. Instead it’s replaced by Ambulances. And then I open the New York Times to see the numbers reaching a new world wide height of death. Every morning.

I could talk about the internal struggle to remain productive, when we as a society are dealing with utter chaos and heartbreak every moment. I could speak about the blessing of remaining healthy, and the survivors guilt of not suffering as much as some of my friends. I could talk about the shell shock of having every business plan and idea I have or had or goal or plan for 2020 just completely go up in smoke. 

I could talk about the fury I feel inside about this Administration’s handling of the entire process, how any functional manager in a leadership position could have probably done a better job. I could talk about my disappointment in the Americans who chose that Administration out of some child like tantrum towards the so called establishment. 

But I have no cleverness left. I don’t have the energy to focus on something to wax poetic about. I’m exhausted. As we all are. And we have such a long way to go. And that starts soon, because We’re Reopening. Who knows if that’s a good idea, I make no claim of authority on the matter. I made it a personal mission, to not take anyone’s opinions too seriously on this whole ordeal, if that person didn’t know the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic prior to this year. I’m one of those folks who wouldn’t have given you the right answer if you Phone A Friend’d me with that inquiry last year, so I’ll mostly defer to the smarter people, in this time when everyone seemingly became an epidemiologist during Spring Break.

Collectively we strive for what was before, and we are meandering around coming to grips with the reality, that what was once, shall never be again. Call it the 2010s, call it the 9/11 generation, or wait 20 years and wait for VH1 to deem it a proper name, the yesterday of our lives have ended. The purgatory of now is our home until we each start our new journey. Societally we will come to terms with the new Life, and eventually have the same emotions as the previous times. We will laugh, we will love, we will cry, we will endure until we all go dark. A noble goal is the attempt to be better humans, better friends, better lovers. We can build, rebuild, and create new and wonderful life paths. It is our destiny. It is our charge. It is seemingly all that is left.

An unknown Patti Smith once asked an equally obscure Robert Mapplethorpe, “What will become of the world when there is no trace of you?” Mapplethorpe replied, “I think they’ll be some trace.”, a hint at his confidence that his imagery would live past his body. 

The days of the past are no longer, but the images are still here, and will survive as long as we value them. Here’s my images of the band The Mystery Lights. Images made March 9th, the last show I captured before the world closed. My last images of yesterday.

016: Frames [and the future]

Ambition is both a curse, and a blessing. It’s a blessing, because without ambition, you are kind of just treading water. It’s ambition that makes you swim to places you never imagined. It’s ambition that takes you everywhere that you would want to go. But it’s a curse, because it’s not getting to that destination, it’s not achieving what you hoped to achieve that satiates or satisfies your ambition, it’s the actual chasing. It’s the doing. Ambition is the monster that is only fed if you are constantly spoon-feeding the doing, not the accomplishing. So every time someone who is really ambitious tries to stop, you stop feeling satisfied. The curse that is ambition always demands more.” - Casey Neistat

(Yeah, I know quoting a YouTuber is something on the lamer side of suck, but Casey was a filmmaker first, and got that fat HBO check, so he’s a certified Real Artist as far as I’m concerned.)

A dear friend once called me a dreamer, and mentioned that they admired that about me. I shared that I admired their boring life of having a child and owning a home, because they seemed happy with those decisions, and by choosing a “simple” life, they were satisfied and thriving in their journey, where as for me, my “dreams” weren’t that, they were in fact check list items I needed to tackle, and all them completely realistic, thus not dreams. Some people confuse dreams with ambition, and maybe they are attached in a ‘second cousin jerking off to pictures of the hot one in the family’ sorta way, but I don’t think they are similar in the least. (Dreams aren’t truth, but that’s for later exploration.)

The dark child I have been parenting all of my existence has been ambition, and survival through attempted excellence. Do I love this dark entity that haunts my every second? Oh, I do. Whatever chemical incantation that is above obsession and love is my truest mistress. A brain disfunction that causes me to take any minor interest and ruin it by challenging myself to drive it to its most extreme result. 

As a child, I collected NASCAR diecast cars. I loved auto racing, and had plans of either taking over NASCAR or launching a competitor (The Slim Jim SuperCar Series) with a more aerodynamically interesting vehicle that left more competition in the hands of the drivers. I still have the track blueprints somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain that I drew up when I was 8. 

I liked reading the newspaper as a teenager, so I started a pro wrestling newsletter, with the logical conclusion that in a decade, it was going to grow into a fire brand conglomerate with a sister title for every imaginable sport, and a monthly journal magazine that would eventually buy out the Sporting News or Sports Illustrated.

I went to an independent professional wrestling show when I was 15, and immediately started making plans to befriend the promoter, and yes, obviously learn how to wrestle, but also take over the writing of his promotion, and then launch my own company by 18, because there’s no actual money in wrestling unless you’re the boss. (Obviously that has changed in the 20 years since, with t shirt and video game money buying multiple houses for even the most basic of talents.)

By my twenties, I got a job selling printers for an office supply company, Sadly, no one in upper management ever listened to me about my re-branding idea to combat that digital revolution that would cripple the paper supply industry while driving channels that funneled profit streams to absorb the changes of the coming decades.

So by the time I picked up a camera somewhere between figuring out how to date in my mid twenties (who wouldn’t want to date a dude whose answer to the “what do you like to do for fun?” Is “writing business plans”) and figuring out how to fund even a single one of aspirations, I should have identified my trend taking the smallest kernel of interest and driving it beyond obsession. 

Ten years ago, right around this time, somewhere between October and February, the idea of being a photographer cracked in my head. I had no idea what the fuck that meant, besides for some random vlogs and videos I saw. So I quit my job, one where I was on a decent career path for a life that would have paid for a house or two by now, and bought a DSLR. I was in my mid-twenties living on a diet of Fuck You and Mountain Dew so this seemed like a good idea. [Also it’s been 19 YEARS since that Pigeon John song Cheerleaders, which I think about every time I utter the words “I was in my mid-twenties….]

I rationalized it a number of ways, the most specific being that I spent the previous 7 years stocking shelves and selling paper clips, and I didn’t want to that the rest of my life, which while is absolutely true, is perhaps not the deeper cause of my resentment towards my job at the time. 

In September of that previous year, 2009, I accomplished the biggest promotion of my entire existence up till that point. One I had been fighting to get for over three years, one I spent countless hours planning, rehearsing, studying, and practicing for. I had finally accomplished one of life’s my biggest ambitions. And I remember that night like it was yesterday, I am sitting on my fiancee’s couch, cuddling with her, and it hit me like the biggest truck ever hit anyone. 

“What now?”

9 months after that night, I found myself turning in my store keys for the final time, and driving 2 hours north to photograph my first MMA show in hopes to one day create beautiful photographs and pay my rent with a camera. I was called crazy for quitting my job, my boss laughed at me, a few of my peers privately told me they wished that could do the same, but they just couldn’t conjure up the courage.

10 years later, we’re in the now. I’m still at the photography thing. I made it to New York City. I’m paying my rent with jobs in the photography industry, some of them even as a photographer. Some of my pictures are objectively beautiful. It has taken me ten years of part time gigs, full time “real” jobs, thousands of miles driven, numerous shutters shattered, and an internal drive that won’t stop spinning. Scratch that shutters shattered line, it sounds lame, even though I did have to replace broken shutters on two cameras (one I blew out cause I was spraying and praying all the time, the other it got fucked up at a Devil Wears Prada show.)

In a way, I’ve made it. In another way, the art of photography is one that one never truly “makes it” in. But I’ve had some minor successes, and I’ve accomplished a lot of large goals. “Making it” is a false narrative in any persons life, really, because we do just keep moving the goal post. The first time I “made it” was getting a press pass to do the three songs/no flash deal at a real big time concert. The last time I made it was a few months ago when I cashed a check from Conde Naste. The goal posts move, the ambition drives the body and brain between the posts, and along the journey I am constantly looking around like that John Travolta GIF. 

What is “making it” now for me? Having my own studio? Getting a fashion-based portfolio together and some meetings at agents? I still don’t have one of my pictures on a vinyl record album cover. What the fuck is actually important to me to accomplish over the next few years, and am I actually working towards something or just filling my time with ambitious ideas but never following through enough to accomplish? Are the pictures I take just a reboot of the patterns I developed as a child, when I mapped out a touring schedule for the Slim Jim SuperCar Series that was athletically challenging, but also geographically realistic for small budget teams to underdog themselves to success? Is this blog attempt another manifestation of unfocused ambition that started with a grand idea, but fell apart because I just get distracted by the next shiny idea on my personal Appalachian Trail?

This all seems extra discombobulated and rambly, but if there is ever anything that is on brand for me, it is various stages of combobulation and hours of rambling questions with no real answers presented, because life is [a highway] a journey and if you have answers you are probably lying to yourself about something.  So I sit here on the couch, pondering the future, the past, the patterns, the turning of the clock on a new decade and new year (and my birth) and the next decade of my life, I can’t help but to ponder,

“what now?”

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