Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Miss Welty's Garden

Miss Welty’s Garden, 2011

I was faced with a choice when I arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, last Wednesday just before noon. Jackson’s east side and downtown—what you see coming into town from the airport—have lots of interesting old buildings that are great material for photographers. The sun was high and there was just the kind of sharp contrast that would have made for some neat black-and-white photographs.

But there was also the prospect of visiting the Eudora Welty house. I don’t usually make a practice of visiting deceased writers’ home. But in addition to being a wonderful writer Miss Welty was also an enthusiastic gardener and photographer. So I opted to visit Miss Welty’s house.

It’s accurate to refer to the Tudor Revival residence on Pinehurst Street as “Eudora Welty’s house,” but it was built by her father in 1925 and always referred to by her as her parents’ house. It’s said that even in the decades long after they had passed away she was reluctant to rearrange furniture out of deference to them.

The only thing that distinguishes the Welty house from its neighbors is a small sign near the front sidewalk. Seeing no other directions, I marched right into the house, assuming I’d find some kind of reception area. Instead, I found the house looking exactly as if Miss Welty had just stepped out to the kitchen. Books line the shelves and cover most horizontal surfaces. I also startled a housekeeper. I quickly retreated and discovered a visitor center in the house next door. There I paid my $5 to a genial receptionist and got in line for a tour with three elderly visitors.

Two docents—gracious Southern ladies, both—served as our guides, one to do the talking and the other to walk ahead and behind to make sure the doors to the house were opened only for us and locked tight behind us.

The house is, as I said, locked in amber, curated as it would have been in the mid-1980s. (Miss Welty left the house to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History when she died in 2001. You can see a short video about it here.) The rugs and furnishings date back to the 1920s. They’re not fancy, and are actually worn and threadbare as rugs and furniture that served the Welty family for almost eighty years could be expected to be. The art on the walls is original and by Mississippi artists Miss Welty knew.

The real treat for me was the garden. It was a sultry day when I visited. At the conclusion of the inside tour, the other visitors adjourned to the shade of a side porch. One of the docents was tickled that I was more interested in seeing the garden and led me on an enthusiastic tour of it.

It’s actually quite a traditional Southern residential flower garden, not at all pretentious. What struck me was that its style is very much like the style of my own garden; that is, more organic than formal in its flowing curves, its mixture of open lawn and woodlands and its irregularly shaped garden “rooms.” Even though Jackson is almost a thousand miles southwest of Virginia Beach, I was surprised to find many of the same shrubs and perennial flowers growing in Miss Welty’s garden that you would find in mine.

Most of the plantings in the Welty garden were either original or descended from plants put in place by Miss Welty’s mother in the 1920s. They’re everyday Southern plants: camellias, spider lilies, irises, larkspur, hollyhocks, asters, chrysanthemums, roses, magnolias and so on. But unlike modern hybridized plants that have been bred to make them more hardy and disease-resistant, the flowers in the Welty garden still have their natural scents, most of which I had never smelled before.

The Sweet Smell of Sweet Peas, 2011

I asked my guide if I could stick around for a while and take some pictures in the garden. Once she was assured I wasn’t going to take illicit clippings, she welcomed me to stay as long as I like. She had to leave, though, to go pick up her grandchild for a day at the swimming pool.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Big Five Oh Oh.

Fortune 500 (© 2011 Time Inc.)

This is a big day for me. It marks the 500th more or less consecutive weekday post to the What I Saw blog.

It’s a day I didn’t know if I’d ever reach. At the start I didn’t know if I had enough to make it to even one hundred posts. It turns out I had more pictures to talk about and tales to tell than I thought. I’ve also learned that everyday life provides lots of inspiration if you’re open to it.

The posts don’t always come easily and the quality varies. I know that. But even when I’ve written something that seemed pointless to me someone would write to me out of the blue to tell me how much it meant to him or her. Go figure.

There were several reasons for starting this blog, not the least of which was to see if I could compile a cohesive body of words suitable for adaptation into, say, a book by tackling it in small bits. Bird by bird, as Anne Lamott would say. (So far, I’m somewhere north of 300,000 birds.)

I also thought the blog might be a new outlet for my photography and a bit more than the usual back story than is provided at Flickr. The first blog entry was even named I Return to Photography. I thought there might something related to my photography that I could share with others. Whether it did or not, I knew that having to come up with a new blog post each weekday would impose upon me the discipline I need to keep writing regularly. I still believe that if I write a few hundred posts each year there will be some that are pretty bad, but also a few that'll be worth something.

Five hundred posts later, I don’t know what you would call what this blog has evolved into. As I look back, it seems to resist categorization, and reflect nothing more than the outfall from my cluttered mind. I worry at times that I’ve become one of those narcissistic memoirists who are sharing their every thought these days in books, blogs, Facebook updates and Tweets. Or maybe I'm more like the newspaper columnist Guy Friddell who used to spend paragraph after paragraph extolling the virtues of Hanover tomatoes. I like to think, in any event, that there must be some therapeutic value to getting all this stuff out of my head. Otherwise it would just keep pinging around and causing trouble.

Since May of 2009 I have shared pictures, the stories behind pictures, essays, short fiction, memories, music and even the occasional poetic doggerel. In the course of bringing this accumulated wisdom to you I’ve been detained by police, interrogated by the US Navy and chased by dogs, cattle and beautiful women. (Okay, only four of those things are true.)

I'm going to celebrate The Big Five Oh Oh by taking a few days off from the blog. I'll be traveling next week for business, making stops in Michigan, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi. It's an interesting project. There’s a lot of potential for meeting some interesting people.

In the meantime, thanks to all of you who've been along for this ride with me. It continues to be my good fortune to have this connection to you. I’ll see you back here soon.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Gift Horses

A Test Run for Their Derby Party Hats, 2011

I can’t count the times I’ve had good pictures present themselves right in front of me and not notice them at first. It’s really kind of embarrassing. But there you have it. The worst part is that they’re usually pictures of interesting people, a category of photography where I’m notably deficient.

Several years ago a bunch of Goth kids flashed me. Rather than take their picture and think about it later, I was caught up thinking how angry I’d be if I was one of their parents and knew they were flashing some middle aged guy with a camera.

The other day I was over on the Portsmouth waterfront. My mind was looking for pictures that emphasized the colors and lines of boats and water. As I walked out onto the pier of a marina, I saw three ladies up ahead wearing straw hats festooned with colorful flowers. They were giggling among themselves as if one of them had just told a good dirty joke.

As I approached the ladies, I noticed that one was in a wheel chair was impaired like someone who might have had a stroke. The other ladies continued to giggle as I got nearer, occasionally lifting Styrofoam cups of beer to their lips.

“Hey, camera man!” the lady wearing the Atlanta Falcons t-shirt called to me. It was a fair greeting. I had two cameras with me, one with a medium zoom lens in my hand and another with a long lens hanging by a strap from my shoulder. “Take our picture, will you?”

I’m happy to take pictures of people when they ask. I frequently do it for tourists along the oceanfront. I’ll see someone setting up a family picture and realize that the family member setting up the picture isn’t going to be able to be in the shot if I don’t hold the camera.

The lady wearing the Falcons t-shirt handed me her little point-and-click camera. She and the other standing lady kneeled down so that they were on the same level as the woman in the wheelchair. I took their picture quickly and was getting ready to walk on when it occurred to me that I really ought to photograph them for myself.

I’m less and less inclined these days to take posed pictures of people. I asked if I could photograph them and they said okay. They instinctively started to line up again for a posed picture. I didn’t want that, so I told them to “freeze right as you are!” The picture would have been better with a wider angle lens. But that lens was back in the car. I quickly lifted the camera with the medium zoom lens to my eye and took the picture above at its widest setting.

I thanked the ladies, wished them a good day and started to walk off. I don’t think I got five steps away before the Falcons lady called me again. “Hey! Don’t you want to know about our hats?”

Sure, I said. I thought they were just out for a lunch together, perhaps a birthday celebration with their wheelchair-bound friend.

“Why, you silly man,” the Falcons lady answered, stopping mid-sentence to take another drink from her cup. The other lady finished her line: “We’re getting ready for our Kentucky Derby party this afternoon.”

Sometimes you don't even notice the gift horses when they're right in front of you.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Nothing but blue skies from now on

Gates 59, 2005

“Blue skies

Smiling at me

Nothing but blue skies

Do I see”

From Blue Skies, Irving Berlin

I heard Rebecca Kilgore sing Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies the other day on Riverwalk, Live from the Landing, a radio program celebrating American jazz of the first half of the Twentieth Century. (You can hear Ella Fitzgerald’s version of Blue Skies here.) I see blue skies all the time (both literally and metaphorically). But on the day I heard Kilgore sing Blue Skies, I was taken back to a cold Saturday morning in New York City.

In February of 2005 my wife and I went to New York for the weekend to visit our daughter. Saturdays in New York are family time. We spend the day with our daughter and her husband joins us for dinner. Before that happens, though, I try to get in a little photo time early in the morning.

I hadn't known that our visit that particular weekend would coincide with the unveiling of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Gates project. Just after 6:00 a.m. on that bitter Saturday morning I walked up Sixth Avenue to Central Park, where I found more than seven thousand saffron-colored vinyl "gate" frames straddling the park’s winding paths and walkways.

Gates 50, 2005

At first I had no idea what was going on. But as I walked through the park I was mesmerized by the frames and the way they imposed a linear order on the sinuous walkways of Fredrick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux's magnificent (and completely fabricated) park.

I took a lot of pictures that morning. Each turn in the path opened a new vista made vivid by the saffron-colored rectangles. Walking through the gates was like walking through a succession of tall doorway.

I wasn't in the park later in the day when the saffron colored fabric that had been rolled up on top of the frames when I’d been there in the morning was unfurled. To be honest, when I returned to the park just after dawn the next morning even the bright blue sky could not shake the claustrophobia I felt walking underneath the swaying fabric. I heard Christo and Jeanne-Claude interviewed several times that weekend about their artistic intentions for the Gates project. I concluded, though, that I liked the bare frames more than when they were draped in fabric.

“Blue days

All of them gone

Nothing but blue skies

From now on.”

Gates 154, 2005

Gates 157, 2005

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Voluntary Simplicity

Pardue Porch, Thousand Island Park, 2006

An old friend has been on my mind lately. I don’t know why. All I know is that she’s one of those people who comes into your life for a short time and leaves you changed.

During the mid-1980s Margaret Rdzak and I were presidents of local chapters of the American Marketing Association. Margaret’s chapter was in Madison, Wisconsin, mine here in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia.

For reasons that probably have more to do with us both being outspoken kinds of people rather than any organizational expertise, we both ended up on an international advisory council to the association. We came into office at a tough time in the association’s history. The members of our council, volunteers all, worked tirelessly. Margaret and I were among the few who were self-employed. It wasn’t unusual for us to exchange council e-mails at 3:00 a.m.

To call Margaret a feminist would be discounting her many talents. She had worked in health care administration at a time when women got little respect in that industry. She was a single parent for many years. She eventually hung out her own shingle as a consultant. By her early forties she had attained an enviable beauty and elegance. Her smile was one of the warmest I’ve ever known. By then she’d also found Al Chechik, the man who became the love of her life.

Margaret was an intelligent woman, a conscientious and proud mother and a tireless contributor to our council. Her biggest contribution to our lives, though, was her strong and unwavering values. She was a champion of social justice. In the course of our work together, she never allowed us to lower our standards or our expectations of each other. No one worked harder than Margaret and no one enjoyed a good laugh and a few sulfite-free classes of wine at the end of a long day more than Margaret. She was what my father would have called “a feisty gal.” And she loved it.

Margaret was the first person to introduce me to the concept of voluntary simplicity. She and Al lived an abundant life, but not one necessary full of things. They nurtured and launched Margaret’s daughter Rachel into her independent life. They spent part of their summers volunteering at the Gesundheit Institute, the rural community health program in West Virginia that was later the basis of the movie “Patch Adams.” Their plan was to retire early and open a bed & breakfast up on the eastern shore of Lake Superior.

Our work together on the marketing association council lasted several intense years. Members of such groups frequently lose touch when their work is done. Members of our group, though, had bonded tightly during that period of adversity and stayed in touch.

In the spring of 1997, some of the members of our old group decided to get together for a reunion in Atlanta. It was a great gathering. We fell into each other’s arms like long lost siblings. As the gathering was planned, we’d sent word around to anyone we thought might want to join us for a weekend of purely social fun. Spouses joined in, as did several members of the association staff.

A number of unsuccessful attempts were made to reach Margaret. We knew that she and Al had finally retired the year before and started building their B&B in the north woods of Wisconsin. It took a little sleuthing to track them down. When they were finally located, the first thing we found was Margaret’s obituary. After that came a sweet note from Al.

They had finished building what became known as Artesian House in Bayfield, Wisconsin, in the late spring of 1995 and welcomed their first guests in June. Just as they opened their doors, it was also discovered that Margaret had cancer. She passed away just four months later at the age of forty-nine. Al reported that Margaret's death was as dignified and independent as her life.

I don’t mean this to be a sad story. Margaret’s legacy is much more about living life well than it is about being maudlin about death. I think frequently about her admonition to consider a life of voluntary simplicity, to throw off the aspects of life that are unimportant and keep just the ones that really are important.

I suspect the memory of Margaret is especially sweet because she was such a brief physical presence in our lives. Some people are part of your life for the whole long slog and never become more than peripheral presences. If you’re lucky, you get a Margaret or two to keep you balanced.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Learning How to Travel for Leisure

Café de Flore, 2006

Growing up, “vacation” wasn't in my family's vocabulary. There was summer vacation from school. There was vacation bible school. But the idea of a family vacation, one in which you would pack up the family car and go somewhere that involved an overnight stay, was unknown.

Neither of my parents came from families affluent or intact enough to have family vacation traditions or aspirations of such. Dad used his vacation time to do work around the house. My mother worked nearly all the years of my youth and if she had more than a few days off at a time, I don't remember how she used them. We surely didn’t go anywhere.

Part of the problem was the family itself. My parents' marriage was tenuous when I came along and when it finally ended so were ended any aspirations they might have had to become part of the growing American middle class.

We were lucky in that we lived barely a block from the ocean. The beach and Atlantic Ocean were ready recreational resources. Most of the neighboring families visited relatives when they vacationed. So the idea that you could actually go somewhere fun and do fun things was, while not completely foreign, not a given.

It wasn't until high school, when my classmates' families did things like go skiing--in Gstaad--that I realized that we weren't just poor but also completely out of the loop when it came to leisure travel. While my classmates were schussing down the slopes in Europe, school breaks for me meant finding part-time jobs to make spending money.

My wife and I didn't have a lot of discretionary income when we first married. But we managed to piece together a tradition of weekend and overnight outings. The first time we were able to travel internationally, I became one of those obnoxious people who, so smitten with the notion of seeing a foreign country, planned how every moment of the trip would be productive.

Needless to say, that was a fool's pursuit. My wife quickly made it clear that there was to be some actual leisure time involved.

Over the years I’ve learned more about leisure travel, the most important lesson being to not rush things. The easiest way to do this is not to take a trip where you have to pack and move on every day or so. We once took a Mediterranean cruise where for fourteen days we stopped in one, and sometimes two different ports each day. We weren’t packing and unpacking each day. But the effect was nearly the same. In a day ashore we didn’t have a chance to let the sense of any place reveal itself to us. We were too busy getting on and off a bus and making it to the next attraction before lunchtime. Europe 101, the survey course, I called it.

University Courtyard, Sienna, 2002

It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I finally learned the lesson of slowing way down. We had the opportunity to spend a week in Florence, Italy, and another in Venice. Later trips to England a France were similarly slowed way down so that we spent at least a week in any one place.

As you regular travelers know, even that isn’t enough. You can cover a lot of famous attractions in ten days in Paris, for example. But in all that running around you can still miss the essence of the city. To get that, you have to have lots of time to look and wander and wait and listen. Maybe it’s sitting in a café and watching people walk by for a few hours. Or catching a bus or subway and getting off at a stop you don’t know. Or just sitting in a window and watching the life of the street go by.

I was reminded of all this while listening to an interview with Woody Allen about his new movie Midnight in Paris. Asked whether the movie realistically portrays Paris or whether it’s a romanticized version of what affluent Americans think Paris is, Allen responded that he, like many of us, learned about foreign places through the movies. But movies don’t have an obligation to be accurate. They’re stories. Allen’s Manhattan is a romanticized version of what we’d like New York to be.

To understand a place, to get a sense of its sense, you’ve got to give it a lot of time. You have to give your mind and your eyes and ears time to slow down and listen to the things not noticed or heard on the first glance. Still, I wouldn’t mind being one of the characters in a Woody Allen movie. They sure seem to stay in much nicer hotels than we do.

Resting at Les Invalides, 2006

Friday, May 13, 2011

Up Batta Batta Batta

The Great American Pastime, 2011

I did something yesterday I don't usually do. I went to a baseball game in the daytime. I don't usually go to many baseball games at night, either. But that's more a matter of laziness than a dislike of The Great American Pastime.

Years who, when I used to spend a lot of time in our firm’s Cincinnati office, we used to slip down to Riverfront Stadium around lunch time to catch the Reds playing in “businessman’s special” ball games.

We don’t have Major League baseball where I live. To be completely honest, I only went to yesterday afternoon’s minor league Norfolk Tides game against Syracuse because Keith Parnell of the JASE Digital Media Group was kind enough to invite me to join a group of people he was taking to the game.

Speaking of reds—remember? Cincinnati?—in the movie The Shawshank Redemption the character Red delivers this line: “We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men.” That’s pretty much what it was like yesterday. Only I don't think any of us were drinking beer. And with at least two of us being of the diabetic persuasion, we were also mindful of the sodium in the hotdogs.

I know that makes us sound like a bunch of geezers. But at least half of the group are on the younger side of fifty. So there really wasn't all that much geezer talk unless you count the famous artist Wally Torta going on and on about his blood sugar. (Talk easily quelled, I learned, by changing the topic to light rail and affordable housing.) By the way, if you’re on Facebook you can see his take on the day here.

The Great American Artist, 2011

Still, it was a beautiful day. Norfolk’s Harbor Park is a great perch from which to watch baseball and the working boats on the Elizabeth River just beyond the outfield fence. Every now and then you feel the rumble of coal trains headed for the Norfolk Southern piers down river. We had terrific seats in the sun. Keith is a generous host. I can't say the game itself was too exciting. Too many fly balls made for not much scoring or base play. But that's easily overlooked in light of the kind invitation to attend and the dignity of spending a few hours away from the office sitting in the sun and shooting the breeze with a congenial bunch of free men.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My de Kooning

My de Kooning, 2011

This is about one of those times when it paid to keep a picture instead of throwing it away.

I went to a car wash a few months ago. I don't do this often. So it's a treat to sit in the car while the machine pivots around and does the heavy lifting. Sometimes I read while this is going on. But on this particular day I was just watching.

At a point I noticed the colorful swirl of soap on the window beside me seen in the picture above. The only camera I had was the one in my phone. I grabbed it up quickly and took this and a couple of other similar shots before the car wash machine came back around and rinsed the soap off.

There was no great meaning to the picture. If I’d given it much thought I might have fiddled with the aperture setting. But you don’t have that choice with a phone cam, and for reasons unknown I wasn’t compelled to change the image in post-processing.

This picture and the others like it sat in a “pending” file for months. I didn’t know what to do with it. Being a phone cam image, it doesn’t bear much enlargement. But I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out, either. Eventually I moved the file into an even deeper photo purgatory, pledging to myself to come back at a later date and decide whether to keep it or discard it.

And that’s where it stayed until the other day, when I happened to see an ad in an art magazine for an auction house, I believe it was, offering the Willem de Kooning painting Amityville for sale.

Then it all made sense. I’ve always enjoyed de Kooning. I honestly don’t believe, though, that I’d ever seen Amityville before. But if you’re the kind of person who’s always looking at art in books, magazines, museums and anywhere else visual imagery appears, who’s to say what you remember and don’t remember and what influences you and what doesn’t?

Amityville – Willem de Kooning, 1971

How do we measure success?

A Moment of Peace in Venice, 2002

Although I would hardly put myself in the company of some of my friends whose artistic endeavors are far more serious than my own, I’d be lying if I didn’t concede that there is a part of me that yearns for some kind of artistic recognition.

There was a brief discussion the other morning at a friend’s Facebook page about the merit of gallery shows, the bottom line of which was that while we all used to dream of gallery shows and may have had them, promoting our work through galleries has become an increasingly inefficient model because of the increased cost of producing gallery shows.

This conversation took me back to deeper questions: What is about a gallery show that appeals to us? Why do we want them so bad? What do they do for us?

To be sure, gallery shows used to be an important rite of artistic passage. Getting a show in a respected gallery was a mark of arrival, of affirmation that what you were producing was worthy of being shown, and shown as art. The combination of a gallery show and a few sales could make you feel successful.

Galleries also took on a lot of the responsibility of promoting your work, an important service, to be sure.

Some galleries still do all of these things quite well. They look for good work to show. They look for work that will sell and make their investments of time, space and promotion worth the while. If they’re really good, they’ll have created relationships with collectors that can be invaluable in introducing you and spreading the word of your work.

Like many other retail categories, however, the gallery business isn’t what it used to be. More of the production and promotion burden for a show has been transferred to the artist.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the balance of artists and galleries is out of whack. The universe of photographers with presentable work is growing at a very fast rate. Meanwhile, the financial record of galleries is troubling, especially outside of the major urban art markets. I was talking to a commercial realtor the other day who told me that his landlord clients will not rent to galleries now unless the galleries have an exceptionally robust business history and deep financial pockets.

To which I ask, do we really need gallery shows any more?

To be sure, there’s nothing half as fun as having a bunch of your friends admire your work in an attractive gallery setting. It’s even nicer when you can see a lot of little red “sold” dots on your work.

But any more we can find many of the same attributes of the traditional gallery experience here on the Internet. I suspect some of us have far larger and more geographically and socially diverse networks of friends and followers at places like Flickr than we could ever have in a bricks-and-mortar gallery. Yes, the virtual gallery experience is different. But even in the vast world of Flickr users it’s uncanny how good work gets recognized and talked about.

And isn’t that what you really want?

The tricky part is the business of selling art. But again, I’m constantly amazed at the number of art buyers, especially commercial art buyers, who regularly troll the pages of Flickr and Fotolog and other photo sharing communities in search of specific kinds of photographic work to buy or license.

That leaves only the promotional part. A good gallerist can connect you with buyers you’d never know about any other way. But the business of getting your work “out there” and promoted is still your responsibility. The good news, though, is that there are probably more of what we marketers would call “points of distribution” than ever. Unless you live in New York, LA, Miami or Chicago, the number of galleries in your town is probably smaller than it used to be. But there are countless specialized online galleries and zines like aCurator that are constantly looking for good work to showcase.

Not that I’ve been all that diligent about doing any of this. I seem to be somewhat bipolar in my promotional efforts. Sometimes I’m exhilarated by something I’ve got to show and enthusiastic about promoting it. Other times I’m counting on luck and providence to carry me along. Fortunately, I have other means of making a living. I’d be a starving artist for sure if I had to depend on my photography for a living. I’ve seen La Bohème enough to know I wouldn’t do well spending a long cold winter in an unheated artist’s garret.

I sometimes wonder how long I’d last if I dropped everything else to pursue photography seriously. But right now is not one of those times. I’d rather think back to the quiet moment, above, in Venice.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Bright Time in the Olde Town

Middle Street, 2011

One of the bright spots in Portsmouth, Virginia, is the old waterfront residential area now known as Olde Town. I say “now known” because a friend of mine who grew up there recalls that Olde Town used to just be called “downtown,” and what allure is there in that? Faced with a declining tax base and the flight of affluent residents to the leafy suburbs, what city couldn’t be forgiven for trying to spruce up the image of one of its most appealing neighborhoods and tourist attractions?

It’s said that Olde Town has one of the, if not the largest collection of continuously occupied Colonial and Revolutionary-era residences in the country. That may be an exaggeration. But the fact is that Olde Town is a superb and extensive collection of Colonial and Revolutionary-era residences. They survive not because of any noble efforts, but rather because developers never gave downtown Portsmouth much attention and consequently never came through and bulldozed Olde Town into the history books. So you could say that Olde Town owes its survival to failure.

North and Middle Street, 2011

North & Court, 2011

In considering a place like Olde Town, you have to understand that our region is woven around a network of winding rivers, inland bays, creeks, the Chesapeake Bay and, of course, the Atlantic Ocean. When I was a child, you couldn’t get from one city to the next without taking a ferry. Today tunnels carry traffic under just about every major body of water. The same Elizabeth River that wraps around Olde Town also isolated Portsmouth and allowed it to essentially whither during the late Twentieth Century while Norfolk, its neighbor across the river, thrived.

Still, if there’s a word that describes what is special about Olde Town it must be authentic. I live in a Colonial revival-style home. In Olde Town, there’s no revival about it. It’s the real thing. Clapboard-sided homes and brick townhouses date from the Eighteenth Century. A structure considered “new” in Olde Town means it was probably built in the Nineteenth Century.

I’ve been taking pictures in Olde Town for years. It’s a great place to walk and look at houses. In the summer time it’s cool walking along its tree-lined streets. Gentle breezes blow in off the river. You see grand homes in Colonial and Georgian styles with a few Italianate gems thrown in. There’s some modern infill that isn’t very thoughtful. But it’s easily overlooked.

Court Street, 2011

Queen Street, 2011

Monday, May 9, 2011

Walking & Testifying

Crossing Into the Lion’s Den, 2011

Maybe it’s a Southern thing. I don’t spend enough time in other places to know. But apparently it’s gotten so that you don’t have yourself a halfway respectable outdoor festival if you don’t have a man toting a cross on a wheel.

I’ve been noticing guys dragging crosses since 2004 or 2005, when I came across a man name chuck toting a cross along the highway outside Huntsville, Texas. Chuck had been crisscrossing the country for a number of years, and had the newspaper clippings to prove it.

Since then I’ve seen several man toting crosses like Chuck’s. It seems to have become de rigueur among the evangelical set. I don’t think they’re all walking along highways like Chuck. But I guess testifying is testifying wherever you are.

I’ve gotten to be curious about who would carry such a cross around. I’ve seen some who wielded their crosses like swords, standing on street corners haranguing passersby with all sorts of claptrap about hell and beyond. My guess is most of these guys use the cross as a “door opener,” an excuse for starting a conversation about faith. If Jesus walked among us, would he have stopped on High Street for a Coca Cola in a plastic cup?

Getting Ready to Work the Crowd, 2011

When I first saw this man at the Gosport Art Festival on Saturday, he had rested his cross atop a power transformer while he enjoyed a soft drink from one of the festival vendors. “Gosport,” by the way, is a fancy historic name for Portsmouth, Virginia, a city that has a lot going for it, only you wouldn’t know that from the way people talk about it.

While the man sat and enjoyed his Coke, I took the opportunity to get a closer look at the cross. Let’s just say Jesus had a much harder time. This man’s cross is made of stained landscape timbers. The name of a local Methodist church is written on the bottom.

As the man continued his stroll up the street, every now and then someone, usually an older man, would comment, “I like what you’re doing there.” We Southerners are nothing if not polite about recognizing people enduring hardships of faith, even if the cross they bear is made of the kind of light lumber one might use to line a rose garden. The man would answer each comment with a simple “Bless you,” as if he were the Pope.

One man even stopped the cross man and addressed him as “J.C.” He seemed as little fidgety, which made me wonder whether he wasn’t taking any chances with his eternal salvation by being unprepared just in case it really was Jesus walking among us.

Portsmouth’s a funny place about appearances. My wife and I once went on a Christmas tour of historic Portsmouth homes, one of which had been restored and furnished by a gay couple. In several places throughout the house were pictures of the two men. You can’t imagine two men looking as different from one another as these men do. They weren’t monks and didn’t have a cross. Yet for reasons still unknown to me the hostesses kept referring to them as “the brothers.”

I’ve since asked my friends who live in Portsmouth if this is some kind of local euphemism. They just shrug it off as a “Southern thing.”

Not having seen it anywhere else, I’m going to call it a “Portsmouth thing.”