We’ve floated from Tehran rooftops to the streets of Florence to cathedral catacombs of Upper Manhattan.
For someone who writes about the magic of sunsets and twigs so much, in truth I’m a gritty city girl. You could say I was born to smog and honking cars, if the degree of traffic congestion and air pollution is commensurate to a city’s size and population. From Tehran, we moved to the city of cities, New York. Thanks to my father, there was no shortage of greenery on our weekend outings, but urban grit and industrial lines held as equal an allure for me as nature.
If we hear of “Tehran” or “Iran” these days, our very minds swiftly contract like pursed lips — we envision the terrible events of the world due to religious extremism. Put that aside for a moment, and think instead of a little girl who saw the capital city of her country as cosmopolitan and pulsing, because it was. She had big eyes for skyscrapers and mountains alike, and a love for city lights as she whizzed past on the freeway in the backseat of her parents’ car.
In Iran, we only had one “weekend” day, which was Friday. As a treat for the week’s end, I would often be sent to my grandmother’s or other relatives’ homes. During summers for sleep, my grandmother and I would lay out elaborate beds with mosquito nets in the garden or on the roof. Roofs, with their TV antennas, wires, faint smell of asphalt and all, brimmed with a sort of…magic. There was something about looking out to a span of other rooftops in the light of dawn, imagining myself leaping from one to the other. They all seemed so near one another. Multilevel stacks and jagged antennas all the way to the horizon made for a tempting obstacle course.
I still have a thing for rooftops, along with alleys, tunnels, construction sites and ruins. Shacks and gutted structures allude to both mysteries and histories. Corridors and passageways lead to unknown chambers; small openings keep the secret of larger spaces. Light and objects through the frame of old windows and doorways take on a different meaning as does everything seen through an unexpected context.
All of it is abstract and ungraspable, open to whatever you project, and therein lies the irresistible draw.
Emily Dickinson wrote:
One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
I’m not going to pretend to a deeper understanding of poetry than average non-literature majors. But that passage resonates with me even as I can’t quite grasp why. Memory fragments and images of locations and structures live in me without explanation. It’s a welcome haunting.
It must also be related to the fascination I feel when looking in through people’s windows. There’s a dreamlike quality to contrasting indoor and outdoor light as people go about mundane tasks in the amber glow of their home, watched for a moment by an unseen ghost outside. Perspective shrinks them into dollhouse figurines. They may as well be an art installation, or inside of a television set.
Personally, I use curtains and blinds when I worry about “fascinated” peepers looking into my apartment like I’m their private dollhouse figure, so I feel only slightly invasive when on the other side.
But the issue of invading does concern me when I take pictures of street life. Without the people who make up an urban environment, there’s no such thing as street life. Often, the most poignant images are of people who spend more time on the streets than anywhere sheltered. It’s hard to see and harder to think about. So it’s natural to question whether taking pictures of such subjects is exploitative. I don’t have the answer. I just know that I’m neither mocking nor making a social statement when showing an image of a downtrodden person.
In a way, I’ve grown up with street people. As an unruly thirteen-year-old walking to Junior High in Manhattan, I used to pass out cigarettes to all the “shopping bag ladies” when I happened to have a pack, and when I didn’t, I would “bum” one off of them. They never hesitated in handing me one.
Well, maybe they hesitated once or twice. Who could blame them.
It didn’t occur to me I was “begging” from a “beggar.” In my mind, if you bummed from me and I bummed from you, then we were equals and I didn’t have to feel bad about you sleeping on the church steps. I was thirteen, so I forgive myself for an odd defense mechanism against the pain of reality.
I wasn’t going to write about homeless people, not like this. But I remember all the blackened, sooty hands I’ve shaken, all the suspect blankets I’ve rubbed against while embracing a street person who wanted for once, someone to be unafraid of touching them. Of course, I was afraid — of lice, disease, erratic behavior. But I took my chances and never let on. It was worth it. I also learned that acknowledgment alone, in the form of simple eye contact, is enough to make someone’s day even if you can’t spare a fiver.
When I lived on the streets of Florence, Italy at the age seventeen — for a mere three weeks — I learned quickly the mental fortitude it must take to survive homelessness. I, for one, would’ve never made it. I felt the pinprick of insanity within the first week, and when I say I lived “on the streets,” I mean that I didn’t have a home. But not once did I have to sleep on an actual street when there were train stations with benches, cars to sleep in, and hotel concierges to talk into giving me a free room. Naturally, there’s an entire story to tell, but it’ll be on another day.
Back in the safety of New York City, years later living in an apartment on 113th street, I had a fleeting, cautious friendship with a happy, young bum. He had short dreadlocks, a constant smile and bright eyes. He gave me an account of the priests or caretakers of St. John’s Cathedral, which was a block away, feeding him and taking him on a tour of the secret catacombs below the massive structure. He spoke of vaults and mazes and secret tunnels, and I never knew whether to believe him. Yet I was riveted.
It’s possible that on one of our encounters, he could’ve convinced me to follow him to this nether world fit for a city ghost, but luckily or unluckily, he disappeared.
As for you and me, we’ve floated from Tehran rooftops to the streets of Florence to cathedral catacombs of Upper Manhattan. The little Iranian girl who later hugged homeless people in New York, thanks you. Some may not relate to me, but it’s not because I’m from Iran. It’s because I’m weird. Good weird, I’d like to think. And since we’ve already determined I’m a sort of cheater, let me bring you to the pictorial for which this post was originally meant.
There, my “beautiful ruins” and urban life come together as jigsaw pieces that don’t fit, except in the friendly, haunted chambers of my mind.
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Beautifully stated, however now you have to tell us how you talked your way into free rooms 😉
It wasn’t as difficult as you might imagine. I’d go to the concierge around midnight and say, “Can you let me stay in a vacant room for free since you probably don’t have too many more people showing up?”
Makes sense, but I bet it had a bit to do with how beautiful and kind you are too.
I love your photography, I basically stalk you on IG 😉 You really do have an eye for it. Love your writing as well, maybe because I’m a bit weird myself, or maybe you’re just a great writer (probably both)!
I adore every single thoughtful comment you’ve ever left me. At one point, I had your blog open on my browser for like a week until the browser crashed. So now, I’m reminded to go back, and I’m glad.
Wow! What a huge compliment, I’m touched 🙂 xo
New as I am to you blog, I am fascinated. I’ve lived in one big city, Chicago, well, two if I count acouple of college years in Washington, DC, and several smaller cities and small towns. Currently I’m in a small town and missing city life more reading you. In Chicago many years ago on a date, walking from parking to a restaurant we were approached by a panhandler. He was very large, black, and fragrant of unwashedness and cheap alcohol, but polite. I gave him some change, which upset my date who was afraid of him. On the way back, he was still there and asked again for spare change. I reminded him I had already contributed and he apologized. That was my last date with that young woman. She was just too afraid of my neighbourhood and disapproving of my giving money to that man. I’m enjoying your photography too.
I want to hear the story of 17 year old GG on the streets of Florence.
Gorgeous writing, as always. xoxo
You will. One of these days. It’s not an easy one.
I love everything about this. Does my comment have to be clever? I Just love to read you. I love your perspective on “bumming” and I love your photographs. 🙂
Your comment(s), “clever” or not, make me happy. You already know how I feel about your writing.
This post gracefully crept right into my heart and took shelter there. I wrote a post once that started: Before I was in grade school, I spent most of my nights in a homeless shelter. My father ran a shelter, and I had the privilege to mingle with some of the most interesting, brightest, nicest, warmest homeless people of my home town. I know that’s not the point of this post, but we share a kindred with this often overlooked population.
I love that you make me see your story rather than read it, and I love even more that I can hear your voice in my head as I walk through your world. You are fascinating.
It’s not not the point either, you know what I mean? Yeah, you do. Just the fact that you shared that lovely tidbit about your dad running the shelter tells me so.
Yes. I get it.
Your pictures are beautiful – as is your story.
Thanks a lot, Jana.
I can relate to you so much. I have always been fascinated by ruins, abandoned places and gutted structures and most of them have to do with my childhood memories of exploring urban places, playing in rubble in the neighbourhood. I still love ruins, they are bittersweet for me, a ruin for me means memories, a story – who was living there, what happened and the beauty of the ruin in itself. I don’t think words can clearly express what or how I feel, but you almost came close to my own emotions 🙂 Beautifully written!
Oh, thank you so much! I do wonder what it is about ruins… If you have any interest, here’s a shaky video I did on my bad phone in Sri Lanka, so I could capture some of the sublime “ruins.”