It’s hard to justify to nonbelievers what makes William Eggleston’s work so resonant.  In fact, there were plenty of people who hated it 1976, when color photography was still frowned upon, and I’m sure there are plenty who hate it now.  Notwithstanding his popularity in the world of galleries, and the art press, his work is paradoxically democratic and elitist.  He dares you to say, “I don’t see what the big deal is, I could do that.”   He is everything that people outside the art community hate about art, and the subjective appreciation of one over the other.  A good example of this is Eggleston’s picture of the inside of a freezer or the underside of a bed, or the fact that he doesn’t give audacious titles to his images.  He just does what he does and dares the world to deny it.  

While you can look at a photo like Untitled 1965, (the one with the kid pushing grocery carts), and figure out what makes you feel warm and fuzzy about it (the golden tinged nostalgia of 50’s era America, in brilliant color), there are plenty of others that to most people seem like you handed a disposable camera to some kid and sent them out in the neighborhood to take pictures of things they found interesting.  Often times, body parts are cut off at the margins, and mundane objects like a haphazardly placed axe, or Christmas lights strung around a pole in a parking lot are the chosen subject matter.  Everything you are taught to do, is thrown out the window, and composition and color take prominence over all else.  I can see why the critics were almost unanimous in their scorn for his first MoMA exhibition, and the only thing that surprises me, is that he somehow survived the battering and kept going.  It’s a commentary on the absurdity of the human condition that in the early days, he was battling the very same people who are his greatest champions today.

I won’t tell you that you should care about William Eggleston, you either like his work or you don’t.  But if you are a photographer, I can tell you that it’s worth your time to find out.  As a resident of the South, it’s easy for me to identify with the familiar landscapes that are represented in Egg’s photos, and his embrace of the mundane.  Eggleston is also an interesting character, whose life seems to be a work of art all it’s own.  For further study, his film “Stranded in Canton” is a weird, wild ride that gives us a glimpse of his world and the underground characters that were part of his social circle.   

Eggleston blazed a path and revolutionized modern photography by embracing and uplifting the mundane and everyday, and I still haven’t seen anybody who does what he does any better.  I think of him as being out of the same mold as a William Burroughs or Henry Miller.  A man ahead of his time who is willing to bear the scrutiny of critics in pursuit of his own unique passion.  He stands out as a fearless, debauched weirdo from Mississippi, shooting roll after roll in empty parking lots and dusty second hand stores.  Now that he’s written about and praised so profusely, he probably still doesn’t give a damn whether he is considered an artist, and I’m sure he doesn’t spend too much time thinking about each and every frame he’s shot over his decades long career.  My guess is that he probably would have done the same had he never been recognized, and that is something that is truly admirable, whether you like his pictures or not.  


Larry's Legacy

I recently listened to the episode of WTF where Marc interviewed Larry Clark.  For those who know little about photography, Larry Clark wouldn’t ring any bells, but for those who do, he looms pretty large in the modern lexicon.  I had always assumed that Clark had started shooting in the 70’s.  After all, it makes sense when you look at the material in his seminal work, “Tulsa”.  It is a stark, brutal and honest work that peeked behind the curtain at an America that few people knew existed, except for those that lived it.  The images were shot by Larry in Tulsa, where he worked assisting his mom in door to door baby portraiture.  In the Maron podcast, he revealed that he had shot most of the material while he hung out doing drugs with his friends after work.  He always had his camera with him and so nobody thought much of him snapping pictures as they lay around with syringes sticking from their arms, or engaged in casual sexual contact.


Among the surprising elements for me, was that he said that he began shooting in 1959.  To put that in perspective, Eisenhower was President, the Vietnam War had not begun, and people still weren’t sure if rock and roll was going to be around in five years.  

While it’s true that literature had begun to peel back the layers that shielded “decent society” from the underlying vice that was a fixture of the American experience, there is something about seeing it displayed in the stark contrast of Kodak Tri-X 400 that makes it much more real than the accounts of some Cambridge educated beatnik from Manhattan.


Yes, there has been since it’s inception, an element of photography that had documented the seedier side of life, but what Clark captured was different.  It was everything that the powers that be railed against in the halls of Congress and from the pulpit, laid bare for all to see.  It showed the poverty and desperation of small town life that often leads to experimentation with drugs and laissez faire sexuality that has been the blight of the heartland for generations.  It is a noir-tinged work of photojournalism that was instantly recognized as an enduring statement on fringe culture, and served as a vehicle for Clark himself to escape the stifling suffocation of rural Oklahoma, and pursue a career in film and the arts.


Unsurprisingly, Clark himself was unsure of it’s value and had no real intention of releasing the work until he spent time outside of his hometown and upon viewing the work of Truffaut and other avant garde filmmakers, he found out there was a market for the outsider point of view.

Following the success of “Tulsa”, Clark released the seminal work, “Teenage Lust” and continued for the decades that followed to document those who live on the margins of society, as well as releasing a slew of films that are highly regarded and have had a lasting impact.


Larry said that he had never intended to be a photographer, and that he only took it up as a function of it being one of the few tools he had on hand.  When asked to give lectures to emerging photographers, his advice is for them to stop wasting time studying, and spend more time out documenting your reality.  What sticks with me about this advice, and his work, is it’s honesty.  It is something that is often overlooked in photography today.  We are inundated with images that portray life, but rarely are we shown the truth.  Oversaturated sunsets and sickly sweet photos of babies and pets dominate social media platforms, and we all strive to appear as if we are thriving and happy, and even Larry Clark’s current work often appears as a stylized version of his original work.  As photographers, we take our share of pretty pictures (it would be hard to be employed in the field if we didn't), but often the most powerful images are the ones that show a different side of life, and usually it is not very pretty.


It was one of those days that you wake up and you can either think it’s crummy weather, or you can look out and think, “It’s a good day to take some pictures.”  I knew where I was going to go with it.  I grabbed a bag full of cameras and some extra film and headed south.  On the way, I took some shots of a taxi cab smashed up in the middle of the street; drivers giving their accounts of the crash to concerned policemen, and a firetruck weaving in and out of traffic.  It was a good thing I had my point and shoot in the seat beside me, or I would have missed it all.  

I parked in Argenta so I could walk from one side of the bridge to the other.  It was cold, and damp, but I knew once I was moving, the blood would start pumping and the gears would start to turn.  The north side of the river is full of traffic, backed up by accidents on two of the three main thoroughfares into the city.  I look in the big plate glass windows, where every building used to be occupied and this was prime real estate.  Some guy in a pickup yells at me, but I can’t tell what he’s saying and I probably wouldn’t care.

I stop in the Greyhound station, with all the folks huddled around the TV, laughing at some real life tragedy while two men mopped the floor in the dim fluorescent light.  It’s the set of a sad movie that will only play in the art house theaters to mixed reviews.  In the daytime, the place still has a whiff of menace, like a county rec room.

I walk around the building and head over to the Junction Bridge.  It’s slick as a greased pole and I take it inch by inch.  Three kids pass me on the way over to the Little Rock side and one says, “This is that bi-polar weather.”  I thought how appropriate the term was for what this winter has been like.  A thick shroud hung over the buildings, the few solitary towers in an otherwise low altitude city.   The bridges are one of my favorite things around here, and I think of all the things in this little town, the river is one of the few things that I never get tired of.Going up the steps I felt like I was going to fall into the muddy water, and once had that feeling that you get in your gut, just before you take a big plunge.  Fortunately, it was all in my head.  Two men with matted beards, smoking rollie’s asked me to take their picture.  They looked like brother’s and made wild faces.  They asked me for coffee, to help them warm up, but I didn’t have any cash, so we left it at that.  

I ran into Phil, sweeping the parking lot, with his arm in a cast with a paper bag over it.  I’ve know Phil for years.  He used to come into the library bookstore and talk to me in the afternoon’s, when I used to work there.  He’d be termed something out of the ordinary I suppose because of his kind, simple demeanor, and the way that he sometimes loses control when he gets frustrated.  He gets kicked out of places, including the library, because people have a hard time understanding how to treat those who need a little more attention.  We don’t do a good job of helping people in America, but in that sense, we’re not unique.  The difference is, that we have the resources, but not the will.  He put down his broom, and we went to get some breakfast.  He says he’s doing well, living in a new place, but they don’t allow overnight visitors.  He says he doesn’t like it when people steal, that people are always trying to steal his stuff.

At the restaurant, he orders two eggs, “hard”, and a Coke.  Phil doesn’t have many teeth left, and I know the soda can’t be good for the ones that are left.  Phil tells me he’s going to quit his job, because he made a promise to God.  Phil keeps his promises to God because God’s always watching.

He says, “People tell me that God ain’t up there looking at us…can you believe that?”

I tell him I can’t, and that it’s good to keep your word, no matter what anybody says.

When he finishes, I take my leave.  I’m heading in the opposite direction.  I move toward the towers, thinking about seeing how high up I can get to take a shot of downtown from above.  I stop at the Wig Shop, the last remaining sniff of the real left on the renovated strip of Main Street.  For no good reason, I turn around.

Some guy in a fancy truck asks me, “What kind of camera is that?”

He’s a photographer; shoots architecture.

“Yeah I don’t do any personal stuff anymore.”  He says, between vapes.

He’s gotten so good at taking pictures, he doesn’t bother.  He just flies around the country, collecting big checks.

“Yeah, I don’t really do portraits…except for clients.  You know…lights, studio stuff.”

I start backing away hoping that it isn’t contagious.  On my way back across the bridge, I think, “…that poor S.O.B.”  And I imagine he was leaning back in his leather seat, thinking the exact same thing about me.



A More Perfect Union

We are a transient species.  We are driven to seek out a home where we feel safe, find love, or seekopportunity.  We want to be free to live honestly, reach our full potential, and see our children prosper.  We are always searching for green pastures, somewhere on the other side of the next ridge.  Given circumstances that seem impossible; threatened by war, poverty, or oppression, we are willing to risk the perils of the road.  Finding love, or trying to fulfill a dream, we gamble our future in foreign lands.  It is in our nature to wander, but at the end of the journey, we look for places to call home.  All of us came from somewhere else; no matter who you are, anywhere on this planet.  Winds shift, tides shifts, and continents drift; we are the dust of distant stars.

Wading through the rhetoric of our age, you would think that the American continent was born out of the ether; a vast empty space, pre-ordained by God for the exclusive homeland of a small population of Europeans dissatisfied with their treatment in their own countries.  Once the land was settled, it’s natives subdued and it’s independence reckoned with, it took on a mythic character, where it’s leaders were sage, sober men who, with the guidance of the almighty, created the perfect conditions for it’s people to prosper.  Ignoring some of the uglier truths of slavery, forced resettlements, and the suppression of women’s right to vote; it was a terrestrial paradise, where men of industry rose to the top through the sweat of their brow, and the force of their intellect.  This was the order of the day, and won out over it’s enemies at home and abroad, until it suddenly began to crack under the pressure and strain of it’s own generosity of spirit.  The snake oil they peddle is that some have a claim to this land that trumps that of other’s, and that those who come here now are only interested in colonizing, and weakening the present order, as well as leaching off a system that is already at the brink of oblivion.  The demagogues prey on fear, and an underlying sense of panic among a population that has suffered mightily from an historic shift brought about by outsourcing and globalization, and double dealing by those self-same merchants of terror.

What was once a rational argument over the role of immigration in our society and the valid concerns over border security have devolved into jingoism and naked, aggressive racism in the white hot kiln of contemporary politics.  When you have a leading candidate for one political party base his platform on the assumption that our neighbors to the south are “…killers and rapists”, and the rest of them jump through hoops to avoid contradicting him, you know the train has gone off the rails.  The class of windbag that has steadily degraded the tone of conversation to the likes of a David Duke rally, only knows how to paint in black and white, but I prefer to see the whole spectrum.

Where is the truth regarding this issue?  I think most of us know it; at least those of us who have come to know and build relationships with people who have come from all corners of this wide world to make the United States their home.  It is hard to imagine that in our time, people would willfully choose ignorance, because it is fundamentally, I believe, a choice.  A choice to ignore the family that runs the restaurant down on the square, that has truly embraced the “American dream”, throwing everything that they have into their business and sacrificing their present, so that their children will aspire to higher heights.  It is a choice to ignore the kind doctor who worked nights, when she was not in classes, so that she could use her knowledge to care for and heal our children.  It is choosing to dishonor those soldiers, who have sacrificed their lives fighting for us, proud to risk it all for a flag that they adopted, and earned the right to call their own.


Kings of the Road

Racing vehicles for sport began in Mesopotamia with the invention of the chariot, somewhere around 2500 B.C.  It has survived in one form or another, ever since.  It was only natural that soon after automobiles started rolling off of assembly lines, the question of who could pilot them the fastest, necessitated a contest.  Over time, organized auto racing spread throughout the United States, and in the early 1950’s, hard packed clay ovals started popping up in fields around Arkansas, like mushrooms after a summer rain.  Drivers varied from the guy down the street who knew a thing or two about cars, to a crop of local legends, who left chewed up tires and shredded sheet metal, from I-30 Speedway, to Riverside International in West Memphis.  Some moved through the ranks, and got a once-in-a-lifetime shot to test their mettle against the 42 other drivers that start a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, but most simply indulged in a hobby, that can become an addiction.  Something in the gut churning roar of a tweaked-out, gas guzzling, high performance engine; the smell of scorched rubber and the feeling that you can push a machine just a little bit harder, keeps them coming back.  

Local racer Casey Findley has been coming back, to get his fix, most of his life.  Like the majority of other dirt track competitors, his family has been involved as far back as he can remember.   While originally from Illinois, they immigrated to the Central Arkansas region when he was young, and took up where they had left off.  They found an established community of like-minded individuals who spoke a similar language, with a slightly different dialect.  While his early years were spent hanging around a garage, trailing his dad and his uncles, he took his turn at the wheel as soon as it was offered to him.  He eventually found sponsors, who believed that he was worth the investment.  They have kept his cars running, season after season, for the better part of twenty-five years.  Sponsors are a critical element in the sport, considering that on any given night, you can incur thousands of dollars worth of repairs, and even the most successful drivers readily admit, that the purses they take home would never cover everything.  In his early forties, Casey says that he is of an age where most drivers consider calling it quits, but he is still fiercely motivated, and he is still winning races.  When I ask him why he is willing to deal with the expense, stress, and the toll it takes on his body, he says that it is the need to push himself a little further, and to test the limits of what he and his car are capable of.  It also becomes clear through our conversation, that although his chance to move on to NASCAR glory may have passed, his son, Drake will soon see his window of opportunity opening, and Casey is doing what he can to ensure that Drake is ready.  Every race is part of a process of passing on the knowledge that he has accumulated, to try and help Drake’s dream become reality.  

To be a good driver, you need a combination of reflexes, timing, and instinct, as well as the strength to withstand the stresses applied to your body by a healthy dose of G-forces.  Drake has been honing these skills, from an early age.  At 4 years old, he began racing go-carts, and he never looked back.  Now that he is 12, he has graduated to a mini-sprint car -  which, for those not familiar, is an open wheeled vehicle with a wing on top.  The wing keeps the whole contraption, powered by a 600cc motorcycle engine, tethered to the ground while going round and round at a ridiculously high rate of speed.  If you’re thinking that it’s abnormal for a fresh-faced kid, who is not even close to applying for his first driver’s license, to cut loose on a race track, you are correct.  Most of the other cars are being driven by men twice his age, and his closest competitors are at least three years his senior.   When I initially met the Findley’s one afternoon at their shop, a couple of weeks before the racing season began, it was hard to get over the fact that I was talking to a boy, not much older than my own.  I couldn’t picture my son, who once accidentally ran his grandmother’s car into a tree while goofing around in a parking lot, being responsible for that much horsepower.  With his shy grin, and his well-mannered speech, I was curious to see how he would perform in an arena that requires intense, controlled aggression.  Drake told me he had to keep up his grades and stay out of trouble to earn the privilege of suiting up on Saturday’s, and so far he was doing a good job of it.  Naturally, I also asked about what his mother thought of it all; if she was scared he might get hurt.  

“She supports it, but she was nervous…the first time.  She still comes out every weekend to watch.  I think she’s over it.” He tells me, fidgeting as the shadows get long and his attention starts to wane.

I hang around and talk to Casey, and one of his main sponsors, Tim Cobb, who is a big part keeping it all up and running.   He also occasionally drives a different vehicle himself, when he feels the itch. When I inquire about what brought them together, he says, “I decided to field a new car, called a Late Model, and I immediately thought of Casey.  He was out at I-30 winning a bunch of races in an IMCA modified, and I thought we’d give it a shot.”  If you got lost on that last bit, don’t feel left out.  I didn’t know the difference either until it was spelled to me in detail.  Basically, Late Model cars are the highest class of vehicle driven in local competitions, and put simply, they go really, really fast.  As the day started to turn over into evening, I left them to their work and headed home with a giddy feeling, that in a week’s time, I’d have the chance to see just how fast they could go, up close.

As luck would have it, it rained, off and on, for two weeks straight, pushing the track opening back, and shaving valuable time off the racing schedule.  Racers win points, just like in the big leagues, and the less races there are, the less chances for them to find their groove.  At the end of the season they tally up the points and the winner leaves with bragging rights, and cash money from the purse.  Whatever dates they miss, they don’t get to make up, there are no second chances.  The tracks also lose out, and that is not good for anybody, because without a venue, the whole system would collapse.  Based on a conversation that I had with Tracey Clay, whose family owns and operates I-30 Speedway, it does happen.  The week before I made it out, they were able to host a few races and Casey had won in his IMCA modified, but they had to push back their official opening night.  

On April 11th 2015, a big, bright sun hung in the sky and it was finally, a good day for racing.  I bought a pass for the pit, and quickly signed a waiver without reading a line of it.  I assumed that in doing so, I relinquished any rights to sue, should I be killed, or otherwise maimed in the area designated, and that I was responsible for making sure that none of those bad things happened.  I felt confident that should an errant tire plow into me at 100 mph, someone could say, “Well, he died doing what he loved…”, and that was enough for me.  

Armed with two cameras and a flash, I trudged down a path through the mud behind a row of trucks with trailers hitched behind.  All the while, a fleet of ATV’s swarmed this way and that throughout the proceedings.  On one side of me, there was a banked wall that keeps the cars on their proper trajectory, on the other side, a stand of trees.  There is safety netting and tires that line the track at intervals, and everyone seems to feel pretty comfortable that it’s sufficient.  Once I made it to the pit, I was utterly lost, so I wandered around, soaking it all in, stopping the occasional passerby for an informal interview.  I met drivers from all over the region, some who had driven for hours, on very little sleep.  After a couple of times around, I finally spotted the FireHouse Subs logo and the distinctive blue and orange coloration on Casey’s car.  It was obvious from his pace that he was rushing around to make the final preparations, but he paused long enough to give me a handshake and ask me how I was doing.  Over the roar of nearby engines and the constant hum of activity, he filled me in on how he thought things were going to play out.  

“We ran the car the other night at Woodline in Corley, Texas, but it wasn’t feeling right, so I just laid off.  It’s still early in the season, and we’re working out all of the kinks.”  He said, squinting as he faced the Western sky.  I asked him about the competition, he answered, “Well, there’s lots of good drivers out here.  Some of them have already been running for a few weeks, at tracks further south.”  

The car was clean and bore no obvious signs of combat.  His crew was spread out trying to round up parts and replace a tire on the mini-sprint.  I got a sense of just how chaotic it is in the hours leading up to a race, as all around us, other teams struggled under raised hoods and jacked up hot rods.  There was also the issue of the track, which still looked rough after weeks of wet weather.  For the first couple of hours, tow trucks and other vehicles circled around trying to provide as smooth a surface as possible before the hot laps began.  After we spoke for a few more minutes, I let Casey get back to work and wandered up to the track to watch the stock cars parade around the grounds in a procession, kids perched on the back.  Some flew flags, and all were emblazoned with numbers and sponsor names, with the exception of a handful who looked like independent operators.  The air turns cool and drivers are directed this way and that by the disembodied voice of an announcer who cajoles and pleads with anyone who will listen that this is their “last chance”, for one thing or another.  The crowd has been meandering in and taking their places in the bleachers.  There are couples walking hand in hand, and children reveling in the freedom of being able to get as dirty as they want, without worrying about the consequences.  I encountered a few other photographers who filled me in on who to talk to to get to the infield where you can stand within a few feet of the cars as they make the turn at an absurd rate of speed, and careen at treacherous angles. 

I checked in to see when Drake would be making his debut and found him suited up and ready to go.  Tim had arrived, and was nursing a swollen finger that he cut, while tinkering with an engine. It had swollen to the size of a whole dill pickle and frozen his wedding ring in place.  He was looking for someone to cut it off so that he could avoid a trip to the emergency room, and officially ending his night.  There seemed to be a general sense of confusion, and from what I saw around the grounds, everyone was in a state of controlled panic as unanticipated problems manifested and were dealt with.  Casey huddled with Drake and gave some last minute instructions as Casey’s brother-in-law, Tyler Breshears, continued working on the Late Model.  I saw Drake hop into the cockpit and take his place in line, so I headed back to the track to get in position to catch that all important shot of him rocketing past with a steely look in his eye; in short, the perfect shot to fill out my story.  

At first, it was disorienting to be in the midst of a slew of vehicles, hurtling towards me and then breaking into a controlled slide as they took the corner.  I stood there, trying to get a bead on the cars, and time it so that they looked like something other than smears of paint on my view screen.  I didn’t notice at first, that something had happened.  It was only when the traffic had slowed, under a yellow caution flag, that I started looking around to find out what was wrong.  I saw the ambulance, with lights flashing, headed over the banked edge with tow trucks following behind.  I could see the other photographers jogging towards the site, and I overheard one of them say to the other, “I think that was Findley.”

I started running too, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Casey’s tall figure bounding past the bleachers a yard at a time.  When I got there, the action was already over.  The white #5 car that Drake piloted, was hitched behind one of the wreckers, and he was trailing it.  I caught up and asked what had happened.

“I don’t know, the steering broke, I couldn’t control it.”  He answered.

“Will you be able to race tonight?”

“Probably, but I don’t know.”

When we arrive back at the trailer, the team determined they needed a part to fix the steering, which likely broke, due to the rough conditions.  They scramble to find a replacement while the clock keeps ticking.  Casey is due to hit the track momentarily and I duck out once again to give them some breathing room and grab a bite to eat from the concession stand.  The hours pass as the preliminaries are taken care of.  

Casey starts in the eighth position, when they line up for the feature race, and the night air has turned cold as midnight approaches.  In real terms, I have very little invested in the results, but I can’t help but hope that it turns out in Findley’s favor.  I settle into position just as the engines rev and the cars thunder to life.   A volley of fireworks sends puffs of smoke into the sky, which then settles, giving the grounds a more ominous feel.  The air vibrates as the automobiles whiz by, and I try to catch them as they pass.  They float in slow motion as they bank away from me and the drivers whip the wheels back when they hit the straightaway.  They jockey for position, nudging each other when necessary, and attempting to cut inside to make a pass.  At first, Casey makes a couple of moves and aggressively passes one car, and then another.   He is doing his best to get to the front of the pack, but there is stiff competition.  I lose sight of him as I recognize the drama further up the line, where the #5 and #8 are locked in fierce battle.  In an instant the #8 car, which was in the lead, is pushed off the track in a melee that brings a caution and the crowd audibly boos at the injustice.  The minutes pass as the cars get back into there former positions and the #5 car takes a spot at the head of the line, and then without warning the #8 car returns, just before they get underway, and the audience cheers as he reclaims his spot.  When the action begins again, I notice that Casey’s #58 has settled in, and seems to have let off.  Shortly after that, the race is over.   The #8 car heads to the winner’s circle, and I head back to the pit to get a recap.

“The track was really rough.”  Says Tim, his hand still giving him fits.  I try to get in a few words, but it’s loud, and I don’t have the energy to shout.

The team huddles around and talk it over.  The sheet metal is dented and ripped, but the car didn’t suffer any major damage.  I wait for my chance to say my goodbyes and shake a few hands before I set out for home.  When I get in the van, I’m still buzzing from all of the excitement.  Part of me is disappointed that I didn’t get the neat ending that I was looking for.  Neither Drake nor Casey is going home a winner tonight, but it turns out that dirt track racing is more like a marathon than a sprint.   Each season is filled with events both inside and out that keep it interesting.  I think about what draws thousands of people from around Arkansas to racing arenas every Friday and Saturday night.  I realize that it’s like watching a good serial on television; you get hooked by the initial episode, but you have to watch the whole season to see how it ends.

A couple of days later, I catch up with Casey and hash over what happened.  Casey says that midway through the race he took a couple of lumps and his tires overheated, forcing him to hang back to make sure they didn’t have any catastrophic breakage.  I ask if Drake was disappointed, and he says, “Yeah, you know, he was kinda bummed.  With all the rain, he’s been itching to get back, and then we had the breakdown.”  They’ve ordered a new part for the mini-sprint, and he is all set for the next race.  They got the Late Model back up to shape too, ready to roll for the weekend. Tim’s hand turned out to be infected, and he might have to have surgery, leaving him on limited duty for the time being.  I promise to check in and see how things are going, and bring the family out with me, next time I get a chance.  It’s hard to say from one week to the next how anything will turn out.  It’s anyone’s guess, who gets enough wins to claim the points and take home the trophy.  Will Casey and his team get a handle on the new car and make a name for themselves in the Late Model division?  Will Drake continue to progress, and be given that one in a million shot to hit the asphalt in Indianapolis, Talladega, or Bristol?  It’s hard to say, but I can see how the storyline can become addictive. 

Dream City

It takes the better part of a day to cross the mountains from the sweltering heat of Guayaquil to the cool, damp air of Cuenca in a shuttle bus. In the fashion of a true Guayaquileño, the driver of our van goes slow when he should go fast, fast when he should go slow, and occasionally steers with his knee while he texts on a vintage Blackberry.  The blind curves of the winding road are seen as an opportunity to challenge slower traffic as well as the fortitude of his human cargo.  Maybe he suspects that I find his driving skills to be less than professional, because I see him looking at me in the rear view mirror with disdain.  Perhaps it is some motive that I cannot divine, but whatever has drawn his ire, I try to deflect it, hoping that he will concentrate more closely on the road ahead.  The view from the window is enchanting, as we cross through various climate zones and the culture of the coast, with it’s striving hustle, gives way to the mountain peoples measured calm.  As I fight the nausea and the urge to expel this morning’s modest breakfast, I keep being drawn into vistas that pass, as elusive as butterflies.  From the dense forests of the foothills, to the foggy peaks of the Andes, I want to shout at the driver to stop and indulge my desire to walk this land at a pace it’s grandeur demands.  The hillsides, thick with foliage, and lakes that mirror the sky above, inspire vivid daydreaming of wild adventures and exploration.   

Having spent much of my life in Central Arkansas, with it’s low hills and meandering waterways, I am always awed by geologically volatile places.  The Andes are young, and like youth everywhere, they tend to be loud and audacious.  Every so often, one of the volcanoes that run down the rugged spine of the Ecuadorean high country spews red hot magma into the atmosphere and the old gods of the earth demand their tribute.  In return they allow us to see the inner workings of a planet that is daily taken for granted as we look ever inward and the small miracles that are offered to us go unobserved.  I wonder if the other passengers in the van think of this country in the way that I do, or if it is just the space that separates two places; a daily or weekly commute to be endured.  With a glance at faces lit by tiny screens, I know the answer, but I deny it the light of day so as not to spoil my fantasies.  Fortunately my wife, who is accompanying me, has not seen enough of the mountains to be immune to their charms, even though this is her native country. 

By early afternoon, we make it to the suburbs of Cuenca, with it’s new constructions and curious abstract architecture.  Even the homicidal driver has not dampened my mood although he has very nearly killed several children and hunchbacked elderly women.  As the streets narrow towards the center of town, he seems to speed up and pedestrians, accustomed to the mania, move at the precise moment necessary to avoid being casualties.  When we arrive at the terminal, our chauffeur is the first to exit as if fleeing the scene of a crime.  We extract our gear and stretch compacted limbs as a cold, hard rain begins to fall.  By the time we hail a taxi, to make the final leg of our journey, we are soaked to the bone.  

We drop our backpacks off at the hotel, a converted colonial residence with rooms that open onto the courtyard, and hit the cobblestone.  One of the first things that you will notice about Cuenca is the abundance of bakeries, each and every one beckoning you to stop and have a bite to eat, and wash it down with the ubiquitous Nescafe.  We gave in to our cravings and grabbed a croissant as we began our tour of the city, heading over to the flower market in front of the San Marino Cathedral.  Naturally, it is a good place to take a few pictures and marvel at the variety of colorful blooms on display.  To our surprise, there was a street fair to showcase the skill of the local pâtissier’s that rivaled the palette of the floral vendors.  We indulged ourselves, yet again, and set out to see as much of Cuenca as we could, all the while keeping in mind we had only 48 hours to pack it in. 


On the eleventh floor, the wind moans.  It is a deep, full sound that waxes and wanes.  You can imagine yourself high in the rigging of a sailing ship that rocks with the waves.  I watch the glowing ember of a cigarette float from a nearby balcony, sailing over the beach and fading away when it reaches open water.   It is quiet, and past midnight as the transit police truck passes the Barcelo Casino flashing red and blue lights.  It slowly proceeds down the one way street and turns back on a never-ending circuit.  Besides the occasional taxi, there is no other traffic on the fresh asphalt that crisscrosses town.  My wife and children sleep soundly inside the apartment.  Besides the man in the lobby, and a few other night owls, the city of Salinas is dreaming.  I can see down the boardwalk to the West, all the way to the white sands of Chipipe, and further still, the hilltop lit with cell towers.  Beyond the hill, there is the Pacific, the lights of ships in the distance, and the ghosts of their companions, lost to the sea.  Salinas is not the best beach town in Ecuador, and it verges on madness during holidays, but if you can catch it when the crowds thin and the streets are empty, it seems like heaven...(excerpt)


Justin Booth, Outlaw Poet

Justin Booth is a man whose history is written all over his face, and as he is quick to point out, “I photograph well.”  He is full of an energy that makes him hard to capture, but in the spaces in- between, there is truth to his claim.  I had him in mind for a project, that turned in to something else, as my photo projects often do.  We met at Dizzy’s, where he spends his afternoons sipping whiskey and making conversation.  I watch him and listen, occasionally interrupting, asking him to pause while I take a shot.  He tells me about his recent trip to New York, where he read in a bar in the Bowery, and of his upcoming book release.  We talk about fighting, prison, and life on the street, and how all of those things make good poetry.  It is easy to admire a man who started out by selling books, photocopied himself, on a downtown corner, and who still goes back to visit the homeless camps where he once resided.  Justin writes poems that pair well with a strong drink, and read easy in a noisy beer hall.

His book, “The Singer, The Lesbian, and and the One With the Feet: 69 Bipolar Love Poems”, is being released through Cowboy Buddha Publishing, and will drop on Feb. 15.  Do yourself a favor and head over to the back room of Vino’s to support local writer’s.

The White City

As my wife and I stood by and waited for a man with a machete to open our coconuts so that we could drink the sweet milk from inside, I was overwhelmed with joy.  The love of life and the simple pleasures of a coconut in the graveyard hung a toothy grin on my face that could be seen from the moon.  Tinny voices echoed off of the marble and granite, a rapid fire accounting of a football match the groundskeepers were following.  Majestic palms towered over me and stretched towards the grey sky above.  I knew that we were lucky to be given this chance to walk in the warm light of the sun, and feel the thick, humid air of the tropical morning.  It was good to be among the living, inside the walls of the the White City, a city of the dead.

It seems that if you go anywhere in Guayaquil, Ecuador, you pass the Cementerio General, or the White City, as it is also known due to the color of the gravestones that jut out from patches of vibrant green grass.  It's omnipresence is a reminder that, for all of us, that there is an end to our terrestrial wandering.  Of the many times I have visited Guayaquil, home to my wife's sprawling Latin family, the cemetery tempted me, but we had never gone.  I'm not sure I can account for why we hadn't, but we always seemed to have something else to do, and then there were the warnings that it was a dangerous place where bandits hid out amongst the tombs waiting to rob you or take you on a ride in the trunk of an economy sized sedan until your loved ones forked over the customary ransom.  As luck would have it, we didn't encounter any danger, save for the steep slopes of the Cerro del Carmen, the hill that dominates the surrounding landscape of the banks of the Rio Guayas.

We arrived by taxi having come from the suburban sprawl of Samborondon, passing through the tunnel that cuts under the neighborhood of Las Peñas, where multicolored shanties cling to the hillside.  We paid our fare and walked past the women selling flowers and other religious trinkets that we had no good use for and politely declined.  A guard took our names and looked over our passports, just in case we disappeared in the vast crypts I supposed, or maybe there was some truth to all of the wild rumors we had heard.  Nevertheless, I felt it was worth the risk.  

The area closest to the entrance is pristinely maintained and there are wide avenues where the ghosts of the families of means are free to congregate much as they would in the private clubs and gated neighborhoods they inhabit in life.  The magnificent sculptures portray faces with such detail that you can imagine the figures stepping down off their pedestals and out into the street.  As we carried on, we read the epitaphs and the dates marking the borders of a persons existence, imagining what they were like and the many things they had seen and done and how they came to meet their fate.  

There are also mausoleums and shrines that hint at the varying tastes of the eras in which they were constructed from the early nineteenth century when the cemetery was founded onwards.  There are politicians, and generals, as well as their rivals, all tossed in together, their battles fought, their swords gone to rust.  Men of letters, whose lives are confined to the space of a paragraph by the limits of the real estate they are allotted are there too, and lovers whose bodies are rendered in cold hard stone unable to give solace to the heartbroken.  A sea of bones lies under this ground, the history of the city and the nation outside, and one of many on this earth that we have filled with them.

There is a separate area in the cemetery, where Jews are interred as necessitated by social norms in this overwhelmingly Catholic country.  Their burials are marked with the Star of David and stones in lieu of flowers; their grave sites simpler without the grand ceremony of the Christian dead.  It was in this section where my wife and I first paused and gazed out on the crowded neighborhoods and skyscrapers that advanced outside the walls of the White City.  There was a breeze and we drank it in.  I left Mariella with a kiss as I proceeded up the steep slopes toward the ridge for a better view.  I stopped to take a few pictures and occasionally to pay respects to those who had passed on.  With each step, the burials became more erratic until they seemed to be stacked one on top of the other and the grounds were left untended.  Where there was neglect, the earth itself had begun to take over and the gnarled roots of short, hearty trees cracked stone.  I felt my heartbeat quicken with the altitude and the stifling view.  My heart was heavy and my mind burdened with the thought that those overlooked in life are also left unremembered in death.  I stopped in front of a small stone cross that bore crude lettering that indicated that two children were buried here, ages 6 and 9, names unknown.  I stood there alone and let tears well up in my eyes and stream down my face and whispered a prayer of rest for their souls and turned to slowly descend back towards where my wife was waiting.

After I found her and we had our break, I finished up my roll of film and we found where Mariella's family plot was located, conveniently close to the exit.  We visited her great grandmother and talked about how nice it would be to sleep amongst such good company.  We had always considered ourselves the kind to be cremated, our ashes tossed into the wind, but now I'm not so sure.  Walking through a graveyard is a good thing, no matter where you happen to be.  It's quiet, and a good place to think about things that tend to be put off when we're sitting at our desks, or in line at the grocery store, or staring at the tail end of the car in front of us in traffic.  I won't tell you any of those things that people like to throw in your face like, "live every day like it's your last", or "dance like nobody's watching", and all the other nonsense that sells books and diet plans these days.  I'm not qualified to do that, and besides, I'm not sure if that's always the best advice.  I can say one thing for certain though, it's good to eat coconuts in a graveyard.