“S.T.O.M.P.” is a new series for La Vue Atypique which essentially shares anecdotes from my career as a professional photographer. Aside from my family and a few close friends, questions about my experiences have never been posed by anybody. After 11 years of being in this business, I have decided to be proactive and tell some of these stories myself. The content of this series is 95% autobiographical and based on events that actually occurred. The remaining 5% is provided by my affinity for creative writing. All characters are real people whose names have been changed for the narrative. The stories featured in this series are snippets from my career with an objective to amuse, entertain and, occasionally, enlighten the reader. Enjoy.
Another Day in Paradise
When T.J. woke up, he stretched his arms and slowly blinked his eyes. By habit, he sat at the side of his bed, and briefly stared at his feet, trying to recall which day of the week it was. When his brain registered that it was, in fact, Saturday, T.J. smiled drowsily. Feeling content that he did not have a mandated location to report to within the next 90 minutes, he proceeded to recline back onto his bed, pulling the covers over his body. Snuggled by the warmth of the sheets, he comfortably dozed off for several more minutes. T.J. loved Saturdays. To him, Saturday was the best and most quintessential day of the modern week. Every day should be Saturday.
After some dozing and snoozing, T.J. arose again, knowing that he still had an itinerary full of photography errands to run that Saturday, including a joint photo shoot with a visitor from the East Coast.
One mistake T.J. frequently made on most days was checking his social media accounts before properly starting the day. As of late, checking his accounts and the status updates of his friends, contacts, and colleagues took precedence over T.J. brushing his teeth and taking a shower. He knew it was a terrible habit, but he did it anyway, either subconsciously or possibly via the unknown default programming of his mind that was autonomously set to “autopilot.” On this particular Saturday morning, T.J. decided to unceremoniously mix things up and check his email before checking his social media accounts.
While reviewing the list of emails in his T-mail account, the subject line of one message read “Are you okay?”
The email was from T.J.’s friend, Francesca Fairfax, who lived in San Diego. In the email, Francesca had inquired about T.J.’s mental well-being given the recent rash of shootings of unarmed black men and women by the police and domestic terrorists in different locations around the country, and the multiple protests that had followed. The headlines in the news appeared to be nonstop with tragic stories of the violence coming from cities such as Charleston, Baton Rouge, Baltimore, Orlando, Chicago, New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, and a suburb of St. Louis by the name of Ferguson.
T.J. was both pleasantly surprised and slightly caught off guard by Francesca’s empathetic consideration. She may have been the first white friend from his circle to ever take the time to compose such an email to ascertain whether T.J. might not be coping well with the barrage of bad news based on being black or brown. That’s how remarkable the email was to him. T.J. would never forget Francesca’s empathetic gesture. Indeed, there was a stark difference between just thinking about how someone might be doing and actually contacting that person in recognition of the severity of a volatile situation and its possible impact on that person. He took some time to contemplate his words before responding to Francesca.
A few minutes later, T.J. moved on to Facebook, a site for which his disdain had increased with each passing day. Still, his friends and contacts were there and it was interesting to learn what they were planning for the weekend. Some of them had commented on the police brutality, protests, and riots. The “some” in that last sentence were his friends who were black, brown, biracial, or from demographics that are categorized as “minorities” in the States. Noticeably, many of his friends had not mentioned the murders and violence, which was not exactly unusual, unfortunately. These were T.J.’s friends who were white. However, the email he had received from Francesca had ignited an unusual curiosity within T.J. that probably wouldn’t have occurred if he had not checked his email that morning.
For whatever reason that was ruminating in his psyche, T.J. started to view the list of his Facebook contacts, and for each of those contacts, he viewed his or her own respective list of contacts. T.J. was looking for something specifically, and he wasn’t finding it. When this exercise had concluded, however, T.J. did make a discovery which supported the hypothesis running through his head: the realization that he, himself, was the only African-American friend of the majority of his white friends on the social network. Anytime T.J. had seen a brown face on one of his friends’ contact lists, his interest was extremely short-lived because he was always looking at his own profile picture in that list. T.J. couldn’t determine how he felt about this, other than this was reality staring back at him, and that he shouldn’t really be that surprised. Nevertheless, this reality partially explained the silence he received when innocent black and brown people were brutally murdered, covered in national news, and barely hearing or reading a peep from people he called friends and colleagues.
Also, it wasn’t as though T.J. was expecting any kind of sympathy or acknowledgement, but he would have felt more at ease if more of his friends had, at least, mentioned the repetitive lynchings and how they could not be rationally justified. If T.J. himself was implicated, injured, or worse in such a scenario, would any of his friends know? Would they even care? People often only begin to care or respond when someone they know is affected, but T.J. didn’t understand why a nationally reported tragedy or emergency — which started off locally within the nation — had to be so close to one’s doorstep in order to show awareness or a degree of humanity about the situation. Why be on the brink in advance of acknowledgement or taking action?
In his mind, T.J. began to have terrible thoughts sifting through his head after pondering such concepts at length. His father had often instructed him to curb his expectations. He frequently imparted this advice: “Your expectations from any situation, or any person, will never quite match the reality. What you think is logical, someone else may believe the opposite, whether that’s right or wrong. Two plus two does not always equal four.”
When T.J.’s focus had returned to Facebook, he frowned upon the realization that he had spent over two hours at his computer when he had only intended to spend 20 minutes. He was moody, grumpy, and resentful, which was not how he had planned to kick off his Saturday, even though it was his own fault for prioritizing Facebook and other social media networks ahead of his regularly scheduled morning routines. This fact irritated T.J. even further, but he had to get over it. No matter what mood he was in, America’s societal ills, woes, and weaknesses were not going to put themselves on pause, neither for a day nor indefinitely. T.J., and millions of people who resembled him, had to get up, face the day, and the make the best out of that day, regardless of which neighborhood or city was figuratively burning that day.
After T.J. had showered and dressed, he headed out to Flashy Fred’s Photo (FFP) store in the Crown Hill neighborhood of Seattle. Flashy Fred’s had been around for several decades and, fortunately, it did not showcase any obvious or subtle signs of going out of business anytime soon. T.J. needed a specific item, and he figured Flashy Fred’s would have it.
When he arrived at the store, T.J. took his time to explore as he always enjoyed viewing the latest equipment and gadgets of the photography industry. There were times his curiosity would get the better of him and T.J. would buy items he didn’t know existed before he entered Flashy Fred’s. This particular time, however, T.J. had the impetus to find what he was looking for and get out much sooner than later. This was because, bizarrely, several people in the store were steadily staring at him as he walked along the interior perimeter. As T.J. casually looked at the different brands of glossy inkjet photo paper, he subtly turned his eyes to observe his surroundings. There were at least six different people who found his presence more interesting to observe than whatever it was that they were supposed to be doing before T.J. had entered Flashy Fred’s. All of them were standing behind glass counters which displayed new cameras, gizmos, and accessories. T.J.’s observation suggested these individuals were all employees.
“Bloody hell,” T.J. swore under his breath.
T.J. gritted his teeth and rolled his eyes as the rush of an all too familiar irritation coursed through his body. What was it this time? He regarded his own attire: a charcoal grey t-shirt that featured the word “BRKLYN” spelled and reflected backwards across his chest, a pair of blue jeans, and some casual street shoes. Nothing about his clothing seemed conspicuous or worthy of the kind of attention he was receiving. Deliberately, T.J. went on to fatuously sniff both his armpits. Nope. I smell heavenly. He had just showered, applied deodorant, and lightly sprayed his neck with Chanel Allure Homme Sport an hour and a half ago, so it couldn’t have been his body odor. T.J. briefly recalled a conversation with Cecile, a friend (and former crush) of his who had visited from New York a few years earlier. Apparently, she didn’t take too kindly to the appearance of the guys she had seen in Seattle. When she met with T.J. one afternoon, she said, rather emphatically, “Oh my gosh! What is up with your city?”
“Whatever do you mean, Cecile?” T.J. asked curiously.
“I mean, the guys in Seattle. Don’t they know how to dress or present themselves? Seriously, you’re the first man I’ve met in this place who looks like he’s bathed!” Cecile decried with derision.
T.J. had to laugh because of Cecile’s bewilderment. She was suffering from a bout of cultural shock, which he understood as a previous resident of New York. Fashion in the Big Apple was nowhere near the level of what one might dare to call “fashion” in the Emerald City. Yes, things were different out west!
But not everything. Some things were the same no matter where you went.
Pretending not to notice the prolonged gawking, T.J. considered that, perhaps, he didn’t look like the typical professional photographer from Seattle, or maybe he just didn’t look like the typical customer. He hadn’t carried his camera or his backpack into the store this time, but should that have made a difference? Whatever it was, T.J. resented each one of the people who had participated in this impromptu yet unbelievably well-choreographed display, unless it wasn’t really an impromptu response. Did these buffoons know they were all staring at him simultaneously? T.J. didn’t want to think about it. He just wanted to get out of Flashy Fred’s because he had other things to achieve that day. Besides, the message of “You don’t look like you belong here” was communicated quite clearly. Message received, folks. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, when other customers entered the store, T.J. noticed the employees approach them in greeting, followed by an inquiry of whether they could help the customer to find any particular item. No one had offered T.J. that courtesy.
Eventually, the moody photographer found the items he was looking for, but in order to obtain them, he had to ask one of the employees for assistance. When one of the store attendants approached, T.J. told him that he was interested in purchasing some neutral density filters for his camera lenses. The attendant went on to say there were many different brands and types, as though T.J. couldn’t see all the different brands and types spread out in the locked glass cases in front of him. T.J. interrupted the attendant and identified the three filters he needed by brand name and size. The attendant’s facial expression changed, recognizing T.J. knew exactly what he wanted and wasn’t there to dilly-dally. T.J.’s tone also suggested urgency as he really wanted to get back to his car and drive far away from the spot where he stood.
As popular as Flashy Fred’s was in Seattle for photographers, T.J. made a point to only visit that store when there was no other alternative in the future. If he had to drive several miles to the suburbs to a camera store that offered better, more respectable customer service without making T.J. feel like a foreign interloper, then that’s what he would do. That’s probably why Robby’s Photographium in Renton got much more of T.J.’s business for the next several years. It’s amazing what could be achieved when a business treated a customer — regardless of his or her physical features — as a human being.
The last major errand of the day was supposed to be a fun one. T.J. was about to meet Ramona Exaspera, a photography contact who lived in Boston. She and her twin daughters, Lenexa and Kenexa, were visiting the Puget Sound region on vacation with a final stop in Seattle. Ramona and T.J. had connected via Flickr or 500px or one of the photo sharing social media sites a few years earlier. T.J. had met Ramona once before, in person, when they had brunch in Boston. T.J. had just celebrated a friend’s wedding in southern New Hampshire and had about 30 hours remaining in New England before his departure back to Seattle. He had asked Ramona about must-visit vantage points to capture cityscapes and urban landscapes of Boston. In addition to offering a few suggestions, Ramona asked if T.J. would be available to have lunch so they could meet and “talk photography.” T.J., who typically evaded meet-ups with local photographers in Seattle, did not have the same reservations when he traveled to other cities. Local photographers in other cities were informative resources who typically provided excellent guidance and recommendations for vantages, both the obvious ones and the obscure ones.
With that policy in mind, T.J. typically welcomed meeting his contacts either on their turf or if they reached out to him when they came to Seattle. The act of his contacts reaching out to him and T.J. reciprocating the gesture was valuable. Admittedly, T.J. was terrible at networking and thoroughly disliked the entire “I’m contacting you out of the blue so I can use you” aspect of networking. Nevertheless, it donned on him that he could network in a way that was not entirely selfish with a zero-sum end. He realized he could network in a way that cultivated mutually beneficial relationships with other photographers as professional contacts in America as well as around the world. These relationships would serve T.J. well for years. A few of those contacts would later become friends over the years with follow-up visits and joint photo shoots.
T.J.’s photo shoot this particular Saturday was an exception.
On this occasion, Ramona had informed T.J. that she and her daughters would be in town, and had specifically requested if T.J. could direct her to Dr. Jose Rizal Park for one of the ultimate views of the Seattle skyline. T.J. was happy to oblige. The two photographers decided to meet for a late meal before sunset. Afterwards, T.J. would drive all of them to the park in time for the blue hour.
During the meal at a restaurant in the University District, T.J. and Ramona chatted. Meanwhile, Ramona’s daughters, both of whom were 18 years of age, were seated next to them, looking around the restaurant and checking out the male specimens in the immediate area. For the most part, the meal was fine — the huge portions were…well, abnormally huge. The conversation was mostly about photography, so T.J. always enjoyed that, but he wasn’t charmed by the way Lenexa and Kenexa spoke to their mother, as though she was a friend of theirs, or worse, a social adversary akin to the status feuds endemic of American high school students that had been portrayed in so many movies, television dramas, and sitcoms. They were incredibly rude to her whenever she interacted with them. Did the twins not know they were talking to their mother? Could they not feign politeness in front of their temporary host? Worse still, Ramona didn’t even seem to notice or register that her own daughters were disrespecting her in front of another person. She seemed to constantly mollify their mean-spiritedness. The display unnerved T.J., knowing no daughter or son of his own would ever dare to attempt to be so impertinent. After T.J. had observed, in stunning disbelief, this inexplicable lack of etiquette for more than hour, he felt that his respect for Ramona had diminished. T.J. knew he should not pass judgement as he, himself, was not a parent and was ignorant of the dynamics of the relationship between the mother and her daughters. On the surface, though, T.J. could not imagine how his parents would have tolerated T.J. spewing the same foul language that came out of the mouths of the two teenage girls, especially in public.
It didn’t help that, occasionally, T.J. couldn’t even understand what his three guests were saying to each other, or to himself. In the last 20 years, Ramona’s family had relocated between Boston, Long Island (New York), and Hoboken (New Jersey). Somehow, when they spoke, their accents were an amalgamation of those three specific locales. There was no practical way to describe what this accent sounded like, but T.J. began to associate it with the combination of a parrot talking obnoxiously through a cooling fan while a person’s fingernails scraped a chalkboard. It was painful to listen. Occasionally, one of them would ask him a question and he would have to ask them to repeat themselves, sometimes twice, before he could understand and respond.
After 90 minutes, it was time to head to Dr. Jose Rizal Park for the evening photo shoot. T.J. drove the ladies to the vantage spot and parked. Ramona’s eyes glimmered as they exited the vehicle. Clearly, she was eager and excited to get started. The twins disembarked, both with their cell phones in tow, and already in use. As T.J. led the ladies further into the park, Ramona stopped in her tracks and extended her arms to block her daughters from proceeding. Blindly not paying attention, both teens proceeded to bump into their mother from the back as they had been concentrating exclusively on whatever was taking place on their phones.
“What the hell, mom?” screeched Lenexa lividly.
“Like, watch where the hell you’re going!” Kenexa shouted irritably.
“Girls, go the other way or get back in the car. This place doesn’t look very safe,” Ramona said, arms still extended, oblivious to how her daughters had spoken to her. Ramona’s eyes quivered, and her expression appeared to be momentarily fearful for some reason.
Needless to say, T.J. was very confused. He looked in the direction of Ramona’s gaze to see what prompted her to caution her children. Several meters away, a group of six black men were seated around one of the park’s wooden tables. All of them were heavily engaged in conversation, and two of them were smoking cigarettes. One or two of them had a voice that was rather loud and audible, but not in a manner that made T.J. feel unsafe or want to retreat.
“T.J., I’m just going to look around this way and find a spot to set up my stuff,” Ramona said as she turned around. The twins had already sauntered away behind her, fingers fidgeting ferociously on their phones.
“Okay,” T.J. responded evenly, still trying to process what was happening.
Something about the six black guys congregated at a table sent a message to Ramona, a white woman, that T.J., a black man, had not received. She was clearly uncomfortable and didn’t want herself or her daughters to be near them, which was entirely Ramona’s prerogative. However, it was the comment she made that irked T.J. Ramona had instantly deduced that the presence of black guys at a public park predicated that the area was not safe. There was so much assumption and ignorance in this instance that T.J. just blinked in disbelief — perhaps the fourteenth or fifteenth time he had done so that Saturday.
Irritation, once again, filled T.J.’s psyche. He wondered whether Ramona, given her statement, had been uncomfortable around T.J. as well. Yes, they knew each other, and he was only one black man, but the illogic often infuriated the moody photographer. Throughout his life, he had heard his white friends and colleagues comment that a certain neighborhood or place in a city was “questionable” or “unsafe” because someone who was nonwhite was there or, heaven forbid, two or more nonwhite people had been seen there or — worse still — lived there. T.J. wondered if white people ever thought that, by their own perspective, the reciprocal might also be valid. In essence, that would mean that a nonwhite person living among many white people predicated that nonwhite person was constantly in an unsafe environment. Did they consider that if they themselves congregate for an event or just to meet that, by their own logic, a nonwhite person might view that congregation as unsafe and, thus, avoid being there? White people rarely see themselves as potentially threatening to anyone else. From a white person’s outlook about safety, given these circumstances, T.J. was constantly in danger. He could never be in a safe neighborhood because 95% of the people around him didn’t look like him.
Fortunately, T.J. didn’t subscribe to that preposterous viewpoint and couldn’t even if he wanted to in his most deluded of fantasies.
All these thoughts kept swimming around in his mind when he heard Ramona’s parrot pins-and-needles-scraping-against-chalkboard voice call after him.
“Hey, T.J.,” she said, approaching him with her right hand in a fist and her thumb pointing behind her. “This isn’t Jose Rizal Park.”
Irritation had now been substituted by incredulity. “I’m sorry. What did you say?” T.J. asked as politely as he could to conceal the mounting disdain for his guest.
“I said this isn’t Jose Rizal Park. The view I described to you can’t be seen from here,” she said in an annoying tone that was mildly accusatory.
T.J. didn’t answer verbally. Instead, he slowly proceeded to point at the sign a few meters away that clearly stated the name of the park.
T.J. had lived in Seattle and photographed most corners of the city for almost 10 years, so he knew exactly where Jose Rizal Park was. Imagine living in New York and a visitor told you Central Park was not, in fact, Central Park at all. Forget the fact that you’re literally standing at the memorial to John Lennon at Strawberry Fields. That’s irrelevant. Imagine being a resident of Vancouver and your visitor telling you Stanley Park was not, in fact, Stanley Park. Prospect Point is not really Prospect Point. Why? Because the view from the park that your visitor supposedly saw in photographs online doesn’t match what she’s seeing in reality.
Presently, Ramona was ignorant that T.J. was only accommodating her out of courtesy. Between the meal they shared, her acquiescence to her daughters’ obnoxiousness, and her repulsion to black people seated at a public park, T.J. was only too ready to abandon her and her children at the park. The only reason why he didn’t was because he had provided transportation and would have felt immensely guilty if he had just ditched them. Whether advantageous or otherwise, T.J.’s active imagination was also vivid and, sometimes, apocalyptic. What if something egregious happens to them if I ditch them? There were times T.J. disliked his own honor system. This was definitely one of them, but he knew the right thing to do. T.J. wasn’t even going to broach the topic of what Ramona Exaspera had said earlier, and not with her children around. Too much ignorance needed to be addressed, and there was neither enough time, nor enough sedatives. Besides, this day had already taken its toll on T.J. He just wanted to go home now.
“Irregardless,” Ramona stated dismissively, “This isn’t the view I remember from all the pictures on Flickr.”
Then what the heck were you looking at that told you this was the park you wanted to visit for photographs? Wait! Did she just say ‘irregardless’?
As it turned out, the view Ramona actually wanted was from the 12th Avenue Bridge, about five minutes’ walk south of the park. T.J. took her and her daughters to the bridge where Ramona started to photograph the scene. Deflated, T.J. was no longer in the mood for photography, which was quite a rare and notorious feat for someone else to have that kind of influence on his life’s passion. He took a few images and pretended to be engaged in the project. He couldn’t wait to deposit the ladies at their hotel and never hear their gravelly accents again.
After dropping them off, T.J. heaved a massive sigh of relief. All errands now accomplished, he could go home and relax. He switched on his iPod to play songs randomly through his car’s speakers. He inhaled and exhaled methodically before he started his drive home. As T.J. mentally excised all the aggravation from his psyche, he drove in silence as the voices and melodies of Annie Lennox, Donna Summer, Tina Turner, and Phil Collins accompanied him.