East Village, New York City, July 1995
Of course I remember what I was printing that night. I remember a lot about that time
because it was then my whole life changed. Again.
From the beginning of the month it was almost 100 degrees every day, but you can’t make decent prints in heat like that, so I’d work at night in my bathroom-cum-darkroom. Usually by ten or eleven it would drop a few degrees and I’d run the air-conditioner for an hour or two. Long enough to cool down the space for the chemicals to function properly, but without giving me a fatal electric bill.
The last negative I printed from was the face of a woman, one of the homeless ones who
walks the neighborhood by day and at night dozes on a bench in Stuyvesant Park till a cop tells her to move on. That’s her life in summer. In winter, if she’s still alive, the woman will sleep over a subway grate, or doze in a train car, or if she’s lucky, get into one of the church-run shelters in the neighborhood. She’d never go to the public shelter where her shoes or her coat could be stolen.
I remember thinking, “Could I end up like that?” A lot of women in New York – at least of
my generation – had that question lurking somewhere in the back of our minds. Especially
those of us who’d left a lot of our lives behind for the sake of “Art.”
APERTURE (Book I) – Malaysia, 1965-1967
Chapter 7. Living in a rural Malay kampong [village]. Two weddings.
After her usual teasing barbs about how we orang putehs [white people] never stop working, Mariam, with a conspiratorial look, scooted her chair close to mine.
“Yesterday-lah! What a business. Did you hear?”
Her uncombed hair fell over one cheek. Her eyes glittered, dangerous as a snake’s.
“And now she’ll get married.”
What was she talking about? Maybe my Malay wasn’t as good as I thought.
“Who’s getting married?”
Mariam tossed her head, a look of triumph. “Rahmah, of course!” She was swollen with the knowledge she had been the first to tell orang puteh the news.
Carl abandoned his pretense of working at his desk.
“Rahmah? The woman who lives next door?”
“Who else?” Mariam covered her face with one hand and broke into a fit of giggles – playing
the demure kampong virgin.
“‘Che Diana and I heard people outside last night," Carl said. “It was late – two or three o’clock. They went into Rahmah’s house.”
How to interpret those giggles? Was Rahmah lucky or unlucky? Kampong women laughed
at a lot of things Americans didn’t. When I had the flu, lay in bed for a couple of days, Mariam, her mother, Mak Hitam, and her two aunts came to visit, spent a half-hour pointing fingers at
me, laughing at my fevered condition. When a village elder died, women laughed. When there was a circumcision party for a boy down the road, they laughed. Malay men hardly ever
cracked a smile, but the women...Sometimes laughter came mixed with tears, but what did the tears mean? Carl and I discussed the laughter and tears, but without insight.
There had been a wedding in the kampong a couple of years earlier that ‘Mak Hitam, once
told me about – with laughter and tears.
“Sarah binte Abdul Karim. A good girl, but a poor orphan with no dowry. Lived with her brother in his tiny house, down by the house of orang polis, you know it? The man with the T.V.? No orang polis is not that girl’s brother! Even a radio the brother could not afford, and the house so small, barely room to prostrate oneself for prayers. And this brother was married with four children and another one in the wife’s belly.
“Then, comes a letter to the brother, an offer of marriage from a man who will take the orphan Sarah, a man who is the cousin of a cousin. This is good. It is good to marry a relative. And the man is a school teacher – even better! Sarah will get a clever man, a rich one! In the photograph that comes with the letter, the man looks good – young, not a cripple, not deformed, not ugly. What luck for a poor girl! A real catch. Heh, heh!
“But on the day of the wedding, comes the bridegroom – an old man, limping, ugly, and stupid. No schoolteacher this one! Heh, heh! The man works as kuli for an Indian in Kuala Lumpur. The letter was all lies. Was all this the brother’s doing to get rid of the girl? Allah
alone knows and judges.
“When Sarah sees her bridegroom she runs into the back of the house, locks the door, yells
she will not marry, will die a virgin. Heh, heh! Much yelling and screaming in that house – the noise could be heard as far as Sungai Kering. But the brother forces her. He wants her off his hands.
“Later – six months, a year – Sarah runs away from the husband, says this kuli drinks up all
his wages in whisky, beats her whenever he's drunk. So back she comes to the brother. What can he do? He has to take her, knows he has done a bad thing. But the girl has by then a big belly. Heh, heh!”
Laughter and tears, tears and laughter.
But, what about Rahmah, our neighbor? Would she be forced into marriage?
“Last night a man comes here with Rahmah,” said Mariam. “Together in a taxi. Just the two.” She rolled her eyes at the horror of this. “And then,” pausing for emphasis and sinking
her voice to a whisper, “the man goes into the house with her!”
“But weren’t her parents in the house?” I said. “Her mother and father must have been there. And her sister. It’s a small house – not much bigger than ours. How could anything have happened?”
I meant sex, but to say so would be kasar (“coarse” -- impolite). Everything a Malay did
must be halus. Everything the Chinese did was kasar. Carl and I had decided the behavior of orang puteh probably fell halfway between the two.
LENS (Book II) U.S.A., 1967 to 1980
Chapter 22. In California with a new baby.
A bell rang when I opened the door of the North Berkeley Camera Shop. I took a deep breath inhaling a chemical smell that told me a darkroom was somewhere in the rear. I looked around the shop. Locked glass counters with cameras and lenses inside, shelves with boxes of paper and containers of liquid and powdered chemicals. A familiar world, a loved world. I felt something in me coming back to life.
From the back of the store, a short, broad woman with red hair that hadn’t been combed in
a while came up to the counter. She wore bib overalls and a Hawaiian print shirt, both stained from photographic chemicals. At least I assumed that was the origin of the yellow and brown patches. Ong Swee Tan in Kuala Lumpur always wore an apron. He wouldn’t have let chemicals get on his clothes.
“So what can I sell you today? How about a couple of cameras?” said the woman whose voice sounded younger than her face and lighter than her body. A lilting little voice with an Eastern accent, maybe New York.
“I guess I need some film.”
“You guess? You don't know if you need film or not? Are you telling me I came all the way out here for a guess? Well, what else do you guess you need? How about a new lens?
I've got a dandy little micro for that Nikon of yours. Couldn't hurt to buy it. Take it off my hands, just gathering dust here, and you get a good micro – shoot flowers, bugs, whatever.
What d'you say?”
“Do you own this shop?”
“Oy vay! She wants to buy the shop!”
I couldn’t help laughing.
“So why are you laughing? I didn't even name a price yet.”
It felt so good to laugh like that.
I managed to tell the shop owner what film I wanted. She teased me about that too, which
only made me buy another roll. Then I asked her about her darkroom.
“Could I work with you in there sometimes? I could pay for it.”
But not much, I thought, remembering our tight circumstances.
“Are you kidding? Nobody but me ever sets foot in there. Anybody tries, I kill them. Got a Smith and Wesson in there, just in case. You want to find a darkroom to use? Look on the bulletin board – there's a couple of places up there, last I looked.”
I turned to see where she was pointing. A cork-board was crammed with notices about photographic competitions, exhibits, used camera equipment for sale. In one corner, three or
four notices about workshops.
“Are these workshops what you mean?”
“Yeah. Rowena’s got the best one, has serious students. Or are you just fooling around?”
“No...I mean...I just had a baby so I'm trying to get back into photography. Maybe a
workshop would be good.”
“Rowena’s an ex-Beat poet – saw the light, that photography was a better way to go. She makes first-class prints and a good crowd hangs out there. I go myself. Friday night's a good time to do some work and then get stoned. She grows her own stuff – primo quality. Might
give you a free sample the first time.”
I hadn't considered that getting deeper into photography would expose me to an artist culture that used drugs. I’d never been part of any of that.
But if the darkroom was a good one, and Rowena a good photographer and teacher...I wrote down the phone number, paid for the film.
“By the way, I’m Sharon.” She reached out a chemical-stained hand and I shook it,
“See you Friday then?”
“I hope I can come, but my baby is only eight-weeks old and I'm breast feeding, so it
depends on his schedule.”
“Bring the kid along. Rowena won't mind, has three herself. And any of the guys who
show up there has seen his share of tits.”
DISTANCE (Book III) – Ghana, 1995
Chapter 44. Accra. Diana has come to see Michael who is recovering from hepatitis.
It was almost dark when we arrived back at the compound. While Michael fumbled with his bunch of keys, I opened the outer screen door. A folded piece of paper fell to the ground, and I picked it up. Printed on it in pencil, in crude letters, the word “Mikel.”
“Looks like somebody left you a note.”
I handed it to him, he unlocked the door, and we went inside. After he’d turned on the light and fan, Michael stretched out on the bed and unfolded the note.
Both cameras still hanging from my neck, I sat in the chair.
“Is it from George?” I asked.
The gyil [West African xyolophone] teacher was supposed to come the next morning to
meet Michael for a lesson. Maybe there’d been a change of plans.
“No, it’s not from George!” A voice full of anger and tears.
Michael crushed the note in his fist, and threw one arm across his face, covering his eyes.
I remembered this gesture from when he was a child, his way of hiding tears from me. Then, I would go to him, hold him, comfort him. I wished I could do that now, but knew I couldn’t,
had to wait for him to say something that opened the way. Would he, anymore?
I shut my eyes and leaned back in the crudely-made chair with its splintered armrests and worn-out cushion.
After a silence that seemed forever, he said, "I have to go up North as soon as possible.
Maybe I can get a bus ticket tomorrow for the next day."
What was in that note? Something that upset him so much he was making a sudden change
in his plans.
"Do you want me to come?”
"Mom!" He sat up, face flush with anger. "I've got a real problem and I don't need to worry about you now!"
"What the hell does that mean? I'm here, in case you hadn't noticed, and I have to decide whether to go home or come with you and you're only giving me twenty-four hours notice."
"I never asked you to come."
"That's true. Your father did because he couldn't come himself."
Because you had hepatitis, you dope.
"You see what I mean?" Michael goaded.
"You've never really cared about me. You only think about yourself. You just do stuff for
me because somebody else tells you to."
"What are you talking about?" I yelled. “I came here because I care about you.”
"If you really cared, why did you dump me on Dad? Why did you leave me when I was little?”
"Michael! You know that wasn't my idea."
"You were so into your photography you never paid attention to me. That's why it happened. You know that."
What could I say to that...
"Even now, I think you're only here so you can take pictures of Africa. You wouldn't have come if you couldn't have gotten a damn show at Peggy’s gallery out of it. All day long, snapping pictures, snapping pictures. Africans hate that, you know. To have white tourists
come here and take pictures and then go back to the States and make money off them. They're not stupid.”
I took a deep breath, not to yell at him, not to say:
And how do you think they feel about you, the rich white American kid coming here to rip
off their music? You'll make a living off African music when you go back. Well, maybe they're glad to see your money, to take your dollars for music lessons.
Michael rolled on his side, turned his back on me. His body shook as he cried noiselessly.
"I'm going out for a walk,” I said. “I'll be back in half an hour."
I was so angry and hurt I hardly saw where I was going.
Half and hour later I came up to the door of his room and heard gyil music.
"I bought a can of milk for breakfast,” I said, and quickly slammed the screen door behind
me, against those blood-thirsty mosquitoes.
Michael was playing a tape on his cassette recorder and sitting up on the bed. Was he over whatever upset him and thinking about his gyil lesson in the morning?
"I think we need to talk.” I sat on the chair."I know you have a lot of angry feelings about
me from the past, and I wish you'd listen to my side of things. But first, maybe you could tell
me why you're so upset. What's going on?"
"I've been seeing a woman up North."
He wiped his forehead with a cloth handkerchief. I remembered Carl and his handkerchiefs
in Malaysia. It was a stifling hot night and the tiny fan didn’t help much.
"I met Memenatu through her cousin Issa. He drives a truck between here and Tamale and
he's the one who left me the note."
I knew Michael's base was in a village in the North, near the town of Tamale.
"Did you meet him here, the cousin?"
"No. Up there. Issa's a drummer and we hang out with some of the same people. Anyway, Memenatu is married, but to a guy who's older – like he's probably older than her father.”
“Does her husband have other wives?”
I was thinking about the man’s age, and Muslim custom. He probably wanted young flesh in his bed.
“Memenatu is number fourteen.”
“Fourteen! I thought Muslims could only have four.”
“Actually he has fifteen. This is Africa, Mom. Here, the rich men, especially chiefs, have more. The head chief of Dagbon has thirty wives.”
I was appalled.
“Look, Mom. Are you going to listen or what? This is the note Issa left.”
He handed me the crumpled piece of paper, and I smoothed it over so I could read it.
Memanatu say she in family way. Do you come North soon? I leave this, go back tonight. Memenatu long to see you.
I gave the note back to Michael, thinking – hoping – he might not be the father.