Tag Archives: polaroids

NYC polaroids 5

It’s early Autumn, and still warm as the evening begins to draw over. You’re walking home from work, treading the last familiar steps westward on 22nd Street. Thinking about reaching for your keys, there in the bag slung over your shoulder.

Up ahead, a group of four men are approaching. Tanned white skin, neat haircuts, casual smiles, styled clothes, maybe in their forties. You guess they’ve been out somewhere.

As you clock this, from across the road a slim black guy steps into your view, also heading west, walking on intercept. Unseasonably heavy jacket, red baseball cap, a bulky backpack. Reaching the pavement ahead of you, he steps into the personal space of the group. He’s brandishing a spray of money; from their faces, he’s saying something. The group reflexes, convulsing away from him without eye contact, continues without slowing down. As they reach you they politely make a space and are gone to either side.

The lone guy has stopped, turned to watch; it’s only a few seconds before you are upon him. He looks you up and down and addresses you immediately, with evident frustration.

“These foreigners, they don’t even speak English. They think I’m gonna rob them, even though I got my own money,” he insists, conspicuously holding out the same bundle of notes. Folded length-ways; fifteen dollars, maybe.

“Where they from?” you ask, because you were curious yourself. You’re half-slowing, and listening to the neutral sound of the words coming out of your mouth.

“See I know you’re a New Yorker, cos you’re cool,” he asserts. He’s making a fairly safe bet: you’re looking preppy, smart shirt, white vest underneath, shoulder bag, walking confidently.

“Good night,” he offers as you pass.

“Cheers”, you conclude, demonstrating in one word how wrong he is.

NYC polaroids 4

Something harsh and insistent breaks your doze. It’s morning. Saturday.

The door is buzzing. You’re not expecting any packages and it has been a while; it must be that time again. In the studio apartment, your bedroom is the living room, the kitchen, the entranceway. You drag yourself up and pull on some jeans, topless, eyes half closed.

You open the door.

A man stands motionless on the other side. He is short, squat and appears to be made of lego. Smoothly squared and plastic underneath his navy-blue boiler suit, his scalp surely bearing a stubby cylinder of plastic to clip into headgear (today a navy cap). He is of recently Mexican descent.

“Morning. Exterminator. Any pro’lems boss?”



In the shared hallway behind The Exterminator are faded plaques, dusty certificates, telling of the facilities once provided by the landlord – SHALL BE PROVIDED TRAPS, DUSTED ONCE A FORTNIGHT – now twenty years old and reduced to what ought to be. The artifacts serve only as a reminder of the dangers lurking within the walls.

Mice, bedbugs, rats, cockroaches… waterbugs.

Of all creatures, the waterbug is the most terrifying. You are not at all clear on: the appearance; speed; possibility of darting movement, or alarming colouration of the waterbug, and are content never to find out.

When The Exterminator asks – as he always does – you know what he wants to hear.

“No pro’lems? No… waterbugs?”

In remote Exterminator villages, when the young males come of age they are sent alone into the great communal basements, to survive for three nights in the rustling, scuttling darkness. To emerge on the fourth day, alive and of sound mind, grasping a furious waterbug – one great black/white antenna coiling in each hand – is a great omen for the tribe.

Today he bears a canister proudly before him, a hand-pumped relic from the 1960s, battered steel and thin rubber hose. Politely brushes past you – a liquid clang, the squeak of the pump.

You rub your eyebrows, make an effort to remember.

“I’ve seen maybe one cockroach this month. I think they get in behind the fridge.”
“Big one?”
“Yeah big one, maybe like this.”

Beneath the cap his eyes fix on you. Or perhaps on something just behind you; antennae wave in currents of air.

“Like a… waterbug?”

The horror.

“No. No… definitely a cockroach.”

His look fades.

The Exterminator sees into people’s mornings; the pale, vulnerable underplates of Saturday. He is not fazed by nudity, by embarrassment, by odours. Ignoring the darkness, the mess, he squirts a clear liquid carefully behind the kitchen units, behind the fridge, into the uncertain space beneath the kitchen sink.

You stand awkwardly until a pencil appears from behind a solid ear and the familiar form is offered to you. Then your scrawled and bleary signature, a barely disappointed

“Thank you boss, have a good day,”

and The Exterminator is gone.

NYC polaroids 3

Now so firmly far from the sun, the cold air outside is a dead, permanent threat to ears and fingers. So you like to look at this old picture here. Taken in July, in the New York summer. Back when you were


just getting used to the heat. With relief you find yourself accustomed – finally – to the stifling invariance.

Before this summer, a hot crush of air meant being at your Gramps’s house, with his fuzzy blanket of a living room glowing constantly in the low 80s. Keeping his old bones moving. You get yourself a drink if you want it, son.

Or that feeling of stepping into warm air. For those like you from a temperate country, the inescapable association of being on holiday. Freedom from time and anxiety, cities and hills and waves and lakes and bodies to explore.



Or when drinking, a romantic vision of a limestone house in swampland. A lightly sweating stoic, a Hemingway, white linen and bronze liquid in sweating thick tumblers, bright light from a doorway or desklamp, pen or fingers poised to deliver something important through tobacco smoke. Sweat, lamps. The blur of fans. Distant night sounds. Stubble. Self-regard.

And not just the heat, but this new, real noise all along 22nd street. The anvil flood of sunlight crashes down into the trees, blasting green light from their veins and awakening a riot in the branches. Cicadas. The hot afternoon chorus pouring through your window, a wash of jagged noise, ten thousand knives shaken in a cement mixer. An encompassing racket with no evident source; just foliage, glaring and innocent. Jungle drums, smoke signals, beaten shields, out of sight. It could all be in your head, but for the way the sound echoes pinballing down the street.

On cooler nights, the tide of noise recedes to a single call, one timballing insomniac. Unlike the day’s constant call, this sound is intrusive. Chirrup, chirrup. Trying to sleep. Eyes closed, you try to use the noise as a percussion; in your mind’s ear, put a tune to the regular beat. To your dismay the wee fucker is the world’s worst soloist, first round and soundly in rhythm, then early, then hanging, lingering late.

Circadian rhythm, cicadian arhythm. You wish that words were sleep.

Houston polaroids 1

On the streets in Houston. The undisputed realm of the motor car. Highways, vast concrete ribbons, arch and bank. It’s hot, the kind of heat that hits you in the face when you open the bonnet of your car after a long drive. Narrowing your eyes against the searing specular highlights, you notice a pattern in the shining paintjobs. Houston is full of muscle cars. SUV, multi-wheel pickup, Dodge, Mustang, Corvette, Exxon, Amen.


You ask a colleague for directions to a sandwich place. You are directed underground to the tunnel network. Bemused, you follow the pointed finger down a flight of stairs and through an air-conditioned corridor to subterranean walkways, where Houston’s pedestrian commerce takes place out of the weight and glare of above-ground, where neglected pedestrian crossings tick their countdowns to green and reigned-in drivers mirror the increments tapping their gas pedals impatiently.

You notice a tunnel map and stop dead. The networks are colour coded. The bright hieroglyphs are backlit on the walls, for all the world like control panels in a science fiction film.


Weighing your chicken sub in the flimsy bag you head back for the office, wondering if your sense of direction will hold with no external points of reference. In the loose mob of civilians and ambling professionals out for their lunch, veering, darting, self-conscious women in loose clothing power-walk their way in a circuit of the tunnel network, loose fists swung comically high to the shoulder for maximum exertion.


Downtown in the Flying Saucer bar the patrons are working on their lists. By sampling one of every type of beer they get a plaque on the wall. The panels and ceiling are covered with coloured plates declaring the alcoholism of the devoted regulars. Over your ale you notice there is no minimum standard of dress; sexy friday-night dresses mix with dirty T-shirts and yahoo shorts with sandals.

The waitresses wear short skirts and Flying Saucer tops. As your glass turns to frothy rings you feel hands warmly grasping your shoulders from behind, and a gentle, accented, female voice in your tingling ear invites you to, “have another one sweetie..?”


In the evening you step out of your air conditioned building into air so warm it makes you smile. Looking south over sparse, low-roofed buildings to the glowing sky beyond, you could place yourself in Greece, or Spain. Turn on your heel, and now the view is the towering digital light-mesh of a skyscraper future. Monoliths standing lazily apart from one another both in distance and in style. The inconsistency of Houston.

NYC polaroids 2

Once it reaches 42nd St, your morning E train becomes an exercise in diplomacy and impinged personal space. The unlucky commuters on the platform give up and step back to wait for the next service, but a few always try to force their way into the sliding-door space. From your position in the middle of the jammed bodies, you watch the nearest doors clunk shut and wait to be on your way. Tense moments pass.

The doors grind open again; one of the other carriages can’t close its doors. The driver is urging something indistinct and frustrated on the tannoy. The doors clunk shut.

And open. The collective tension is palpable; there is no-one at whom anger can be directed. Clunk. Open. Clunk. Open, again.

From the driver, something that sounds like, “get your freakin’ body parts inside the train.” Then – clunk – the train finally pulls away and expressions ease.


You step into Billy’s Bakery to pick up some pineapple cake. As usual the hipster bakers outnumber the customers by five to one. As you take in the scene a woman barges past you in a thief’s dash for the door and disappears. A moment passes. You reconstruct her image in your mind: gaunt, weathered, one hand immediately to her mouth urgently cramming in chocolate cake, crumbs scattering. On the counter, the ‘free samples’ plate is now empty. The staff take little notice. One way to get a meal.


From the 38th floor of your skyscraper, only police sirens are audible, weaving their lament around the skyscrapers. A choir of cat-demons and banshees, fighting and wailing. The cops are bored of the standard scream and blip-bloop the siren switch to create their own mixes; amateur DJs. A creative outlet.


After the storms, you emerge from work into the muggy evening air on Lexington. The streets are awash with dead umbrellas; enormous segmented jellyfish. Stepping over and between their beached, dropleted, crumpled forms, through wraiths of subway steam.


On the crowded subway home the older woman on the other side of the steel pole is looking at the floor, blinking rapidly. You hold on, hand at shoulder level against the jolting of the train. Minutes pass. Jostling and rocking, you notice her hand clasping the pole below yours. After 53rd and 7th she leans, closer. Her eyes are now a forced nonchalance, directed unblinking at the window, as she slowly closes the gap and gently rests her cheek against the back of your hand.

NYC polaroids 1

The Pearl Oyster Bar on a winter evening, bright and unadorned. At the bar, patrons wait for a table. Malcolm McLaren sips something cold and makes no conversation with his Asian companion.

The writer for The Sopranos wrote this restaurant specifically into the script. The main character, Tony emerges from a coma craving their ‘lobster roll’. After taking your table, it’s easy to take his recommendation.
The dish arrives swiftly, an unpretentious sandwich overgrown with shoestring fries, a tangle of crispy filaments. The lobster is cubed and shell-less, cold fleshy chunks slick with mayo, clean and weighty, in a sickly-sweet hotdog bun.


You duck out of pouring rain into the Church of St Paul the Apostle. Grand architecture, warm oranges and purples, far vaulted ceilings bearing projected lights for the occasion. Rows of wooden pews face the large raised stage.

The orchestra takes their place; you applaud. John Adams’ Christian Zeal and Activity is surprisingly caustic and irreverent. You wonder if any pious patrons are disgruntled.

The bench is too hard. You shift uncomfortably as they move into the next piece, Gavin Bryars’ hypnotic but over-long Sinking of the Titanic. The notion is that the music reflects sinking into the ocean with the ship as the band continues to play. Waves of green and blue lights wash cleverly over the scene, convincing and calming.


The Empire State building welcomes you home again. The pattern of lights change every day or two. Perhaps it is signalling to its fellow buildings; a slow Close Encounters morse. The glacial language of skyscrapers; creaks and whispers on multi-storey winds.