Scratching The Surface - new travels for the new film
There's a dulling science or maybe a doldrum magic at work in hotel rooms. How is that lurid floral bedding, tepid art, light-killing chintz curtains, and a host of industrial fixtures can combine to create a kind of sense-deadening harmony? And when exactly did these numb rooms become a comfort? After so much travel I now welcome surrendering my soul to transient, generic spaces; that feeling of my spirit becoming a substance as acrylic, polyester, and petroleum based as the objects around me. Even after short flight I happily throw myself on a bed that has the softness and texture of linoleum. Breathing in the scents of soap, disinfectant, and carpet, I let go of any nostalgia for familiar and well worn furnishings and ahhhhh – let myself become Sheratonized.
There is one unique quality to these rooms though – the light, or lack of it, is always distinct. In a 6th floor room in the Pacific Northwest, a hot light spears its way through the curtains as a breeze gently opens and closes the panels. The effect slows time like a ticking clock in quiet house. The shaft of light widens and thins, sometimes stretching over the bed. It's a king sized bed - the kind that makes one picture illicit lovers or lonely businessmen. Who else has been stretched out here, watching the bright line flash on the mauve carpet like the ray from a lighthouse?
The dance floor in Olympia is nearly empty but ruled by two longhaired men. On the left a man in his 50’s with his hair in a lank, gray ponytail dances beneath a hug, transparent balloon. His eyes have the peculiar glazed but focused look of a person consumed by their obsession. He certainly knows we are watching – his showmanship is superb – but he never looks away from the rising, falling balloon. It touches his wrist as light as a finger dabbing on perfume. Up it sails, allowing him a slow wide armed spin. It falls against his shoulder, trots down his soft arm. Tap. Up it goes and round he goes, all night. On the other side, a tall Native American guy is gray sweats takes to the floor and gives it up to every soul hit as if he were performing before an audience of devoted fans. He shakes his long dark hair; pouts and mouths through every longing, grooving, hurting lyric with his lips coated in shiny red; he raises his hands, nails gleaming with black polish, outward to receive the silent applause of the invisible thousands. I’m so convinced by the joy in his face that I begin to think of the disco lights sweeping the empty floor around as ephemeral security guards holding back the ghost crowd.
In the soft, mauve and white interior of her suburban home, we interview a woman about the death of her son, (For the sake of her case the location and details of his circumstances are left out). I’m running sound, so though she sits across the table, her voice is in my ears, eerily close. She speaks with a shaky combination of anger and sorrow as she describes her son's mental deterioration and her attempts to have him placed into stable treatments. Her demeanor changes though as she comes to the details of her his death. Her voice is stern and sure as she tell us that it wasn’t a normal suicide, not at all, that her son cut his own throat almost to the point of decapitation, that he slit open his abdomen and died with the box cutter in one hand and the other reaching up to his wrist in the belly wound he’s made. His note simply read “ I smiled through this experience.” She doesn’t finch, blink, or tear-up. She doesn’t choke back emotion. She looks me in the eye with a challenge and the table between us seems to waver though she never does.
If you saw Eddie’s bright face, his sharp eyes and smooth skin with its deep tan-brown coloring, you’d be hard pressed to guess his age, let alone to see a trace of what’s been done to him. Eddie was part of the infamous, toxic skin experiments (and other tests as well) that took place on the prisoners at Holmesburg prison in the 6O’s and 70’s. The only visible evidence of his experience is in his hands. His fingers are double normal sized and their skin is stretched to the point of cracking. His nails are thick and sit crookedly, as if about to fall away. His hands moved oddly, like loose costume appendages as he gestures to the diner around us, telling us this is the breakfast joint for big Philly mobsters. If so they look like any other old men on their SSI sunday breakfast outings. This convinces me that every one is a cold blooded killer – especially the meek, watery and lost eyed man who politely asks for more ketchup. Eddie meanwhile is giving us a sermon on how the Muslim faith rescued him from darkness. He tells us the west is the Occident – OC – as in occult – hidden – where the sun descends… that U.S.Capiltalism keeps it’s power hidden and magical and satanic. He says he was that trying to live in these systems brought him to point of taking his own life but a holy fearful love of Allah stayed his hand. Behind him a tall balding man and a taller black tranny walk to the counter together with nervous pride. They talk note when as Eddie tells us with loving passion that a Muslim must pray 5 times a day simply to cool his eye from the things he sees in this world. The old men at the nearby counter don’t look up from their eggs and crosswords for anything but coffee.
Our hotel in Annapolis looks out over a tiny graveyard. Behind it, almost engulfing it is a mall. Shop signs read like descriptions of suburban heaven –Whole Foods, 24-hour Fitness, and of course Bed Bath and BEYOND – floating above the headstones. I spend an hour taking photos while birds chirp and the light becomes as peaceful and pastoral as in any rural churchyard. I wonder though about how much rest the departed are getting. The freeway runs just outside the gates. I imagine a host of exhausted, sleepy dead shaken by truck rumbles till Judgement day. I'm sure we will have disturbances in the night. I hope so. Nothing uncanny takes place however till the next morning. In the hotel gym I sweat on on the machines and look out the graves, at random (I swear - on my granny's grave) the song "Pretty Little Cemetery" comes through on a Pandora radio channel. The tune is a peaceful lullabye. Maybe the dead are happy next to the mall where they shopped, perhaps they are getting some rest after all.
I took the photo above because there was something so cottony and compelling in the white scratches on the glossy mural paper, in the way the feathery texture was gouged into the image of the harsh sofa pillows. Back at Amy's house, I color balanced it with other pictures as I waited for Gannet to show up. He arrived shaking and weak spirited and I thought once again his health would prevent us from having any fun. He tried to be friendly but his body simply shut down. He stretched out on the sofa bed with weary but satisfied smile and closed his eyes. Seeing him drift, I realized how much I miss putting him go to sleep, watching all that ferocious energy ebb away from his taut muscles and fragile bones. The next morning I woke to the familiar sound of him scratching the sofa and giggling. I thought of the picture I'd taken and the weird music of all those mornings with him, preparing breakfast while he contentedly badger-clawed the couch. After seeing him ill on so many previous visits, it was such a pleasure to remember how happy he can be and how satisfying that happiness is, coming as it does from something as simple as a fingernail on fabric.