Tuesday, October 18, 2011

dust marks the years

Tonight I was lucky enough to have dinner with a large portion of my extended family. Besides the joining of several generations and backgrounds, there was good news to share. My nephew announced that one of the schools he applied to, Northern Illinois university, offered him a full ride academic scholarship. needless to say, I am one proud uncle. Of course, sitting next to my nephew was his younger brother and my son, both of whom will probably never be offered such an opportunity.  So I was sure to pay them compliments throughout the evening as well.

For those unfamiliar, Northern Illinois University is located in DeKalb, Illinois, a town known more for agriculture than education. It is nestled just southeast of Rockford at the northern point of the geographic Illinois landscape that is as flat as a plate. I love my nephew and I love agriculture but I fear the two would not make a good pair. My nephew is a little too sophisticated for that. Regardless, it got me thinking about that time in my life and how it all seems so far away.

I attended Loyola University in Chicago between the years of 1986 and 1990. It was the best option I had, seeing how I was asked to leave the University of Illinois after two academically horrible semesters. And in retrospect, getting kicked out of that high school with ash trays was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. Instead of living at home and commuting to school every day, I relocated to what is arguably the best city in the world, my sweet home, Chicago.

Rogers Park became my home. A block from Sheridan and just north of Granville, I was at 6235 North Kenmore Avenue. I learned to take buses and trains and ride my bike. I went to little vegan restaurants on dates, watched the Lake Michigan waves break on the shore, and even chased after a mugger once. I fell in love and out of love and got drunk on warm humid spring nights. I was born again, unto myself, surrounded by art and theater and lectures and books and buildings.

Being a communication major meant attending a good deal of classes at the Water Tower Campus. Got to love the Jesuits, only they would have property on the Gold Coast. To get there meant a train from the Loyola or Granville stops to the Chicago Street stop. There was where I met Mary. More specifically, there is where I met Mailbox Mary.

She was an old woman, wiry and thin, who appeared and smelled like she was homeless. She would wait alongside the Dunkin Donuts near the stairs that led from the subway. Sometimes she would just panhandle. Other times she would jump out at young men and try to grab their crotches yelling simple phrases like, "Lemme hold your pickle!" Either way, it only took one walk past Mary before you learned to walk on the outside edge of the sidewalk.

Why Mailbox Mary? The story was that Mary was a prostitute earlier in her life and by most accounts, a profitable one. She was also said to be smart. Her policy was that clients place their payments for her services into an envelope which she provided, already stamped and addressed. She and her John would arrange an encounter, he would place the payment in the envelope, they would walk together to the nearest mailbox and send the payment, then complete the deal, so to speak. The police could not arrest her because she did not get paid for the sex at the time it took place. Her attorneys were always able to argue that no matter how immoral her lifestyle was, sending money through the US Mail was not against the law.

It was also said that Mary contracted syphilis through her profession which subsequently brought on her mental illness she exhibited years later on the street, the first time I met her. That was twenty years ago. Mary is probably no longer with us. I wonder if I am the only one who remembers her now.

My son recently took an interest in film photography. To answer some of his questions about how these "old" cameras work, I brought down my Minolta SLR camera that I had in college. My parents bought it for me to use in a black and white photography class I was taking. Once I learned how to use it, I took it every where.  I photographed buildings, nature, anything that captured my eye. I even had a friend ask me to photograph her in a series of poses for submission to a modelling agency.

Now that camera sits on a shelf in the house, collecting dust. It is the characterization of my vision when I was in college. Once it was done, it was done. School's over, move on. Thank God for my son and Walgreen's. I bought 35 mm film tonight and loaded one up. I was surprised to see my fingers still instinctively knew all of the controls and the meter battery still had some juice in it. The first photo I took was of my beautiful bride, posing seductively in a low cut black top. And the best part of it all, is remembering the field of vision. I pressed the shutter release, the mirror dropped, the film was exposed, the mirror returned, and I saw her again in the eye piece.

No digital display to see what I just captured. This is art. This requires knowing when to pull the trigger, knowing when the moment is just about to be right so when the light is cast onto the film, you will get exactly what you wanted to capture. Using this camera, you never see the moment the picture is taken. For that, you need to wait. I can close my eyes right now and still see the image of my wife, right before I pressed the shutter release all the way down. Her eyes, her skin, everything is still there for me. It is a moment in time I did not waste. I cherished it. This is a gift digital photography does not offer us. Now we push a button and look to see what we got. Then we take another, and another, and another.

Our lives have become a series of unsatisfying moments when viewed through the digital age. I am so glad I have learned to see again through my analog eyes of old.