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Me, my selfie and I


(my steady hand)

On a recent vacation, my husband and I found ourselves walking past dozens of stumbling drunk people who would abruptly stop in place to take a selfie, posing against the backdrop of casino lights and celebrity impersonators that would dot the Vegas streets. Most times, the selfie-ish would be slow to a crawl while fumbling with the cell phone, balancing their liquor with the free hand until eventually smashing into the corner of a building, a pole or me.

For some reason, selfies and Vegas go hand-in-hand. The only selfie I have ever taken was in my hotel room at the Flamingo, and I managed to botch attempt by snapping only half of a mugging face. Even then, the whole thing smacked of zealous vanity.

Half drunk Vegas photos have nothing on the Grand Canyon, that magnificent natural wonder that seems to inspire a maniacal run of selfies. Our vehicle stopped at one rest/view site swarming with Russian and German tourists who had all propped themselves up or against the stone walls that rimmed the Canyon. The view of rugged and rich canyon in brilliant reds and yellows might have been unparalleled, but we could never really get past the thick crowd of tourists who, instead of looking at the view, had their backs to it as they shot one selfie after another. One Russian tourist was smart enough to bring one of those camera arms that allowed him to take time photos of himself posing with friends. Their little group took hundreds of photos, contorting in different poses in between chain smoking and toe smashing cigarette butts into the ground.

Before we left this particular viewing sight, a small group of three – two teenaged daughters and their mother – pushed through the crowd of Euros until they were able to get to their own spot against the stone wall. The eldest daughter pulled out her cell and began to take a series of shots, each pose featuring a cute smile and a pose that highlighted her talent for running fingers through long, thick brown hair.

“The camera! Give me the camera, mom!,” the girl urged, as her mother stepped forward with an expensive Nikon.

The girl grabbed the Nikon, pointed the lens towards her face and began to snap a series of carefully posed selfies as her proud mother watched. Asking mom to take a photo while daughter posed must now be a lost art.

As I walked away from the chaotic crowds of selfie snappers, I spotted my husband standing to the side, pointing our own Nikon at a vulture lurking on top of a rock. That might have been our pre-senior citizen moment in time.

I used to love photography, having owned several high end cameras. In my own unsteady hand, however, photography was an expensive experiment in blurred pictures. Four years of film school may have taught me how to set up a beautiful shot, but the execution was always poor. Digital photography managed to compensate for all the errors, but I lost sight in my right eye for a few years. That managed to remove my interest in photography until visiting my mother’s cousin, a wealthy proprietor of a sushi restaurant in Yokohama.

Yu-chan’s restaurant was also his home, two stories of dining tables and three stories of residence. The restaurant was snug, long and narrow with Japanese artwork carefully spread out along light brown walls. He had a dedicated clientele who spent plenty of money on his food, mostly fish that Yu-chan chose from Tsukiji fish markets. His most dedicated customers would sit at the sushi bar, relaxing into sakes and food until and Yu-chan would power up the karaoke machine sometime past 10 pm.

I have never eaten at his restaurant but have seen his clients and the near raucous nights of singing and drinking that took place in his restaurant. I have all of this from viewing the photos.

The success of Yu-chan’s business fueled his real passion for photography, which he managed to house on the fifth floor of his home. He kept a mostly private hideaway, a mid-sized room of beautiful lacquered wood that overlooked a small vegetable garden of cucumbers, shishito peppers and other greens on the roof.

We met Yu-chan one afternoon at a Korean BBQ restaurant a few blocks away from his home, and he began to snap photo after photo of us as we ate our way through generous helpings of kalbi and bulgolgi. As we rose to leave the restaurant, Yu-chan continued to snap the photos, never once asking us to pose. He also photographed our brief encounter with a row of vending machines, and then our little shopping trip in a small stationary store where another cousin made a gift of everything that caught my husband’s interest. Yu-chan captured every glance, look of surprise and every moment of our exchange with the store cashier. Yu-chan also took photos of us walking to his home/restaurant, exhibiting all the slick maneuverability of the paparazzi as he flexed behind trash cans, mini walls and faced oncoming traffic.
Yu-chan was a different breed of photographer. He managed to catalog every day of his life for the past thirty years, capturing every thought, moment of solitude or encounter with friends with a sophisticated Nikon camera. These photos, along with accompanying memories – matchbooks, menus, papers, pieces of wood – were placed in a scrap book album. Yu-chan had over 3000 photo albums that lined the floor to ceiling shelves of his fifth floor room. In spaces between the tall bookshelves were beautiful artist renderings of naked women, from pencil to paint. These pieces of art were a talisman to keep his wife away from the room because she had no appreciation of his hobby, he would say.

He showed us seven photo albums of a recent trip to Bali, where his only child lived with her husband and new born baby. Along with stunning photographs of crisp, blue water, rows of homes, family members and plates of food was a hat made from straw, menus, remnants of a torch and a clear bag of sand. Very few of the photos were staged, resulting in hundreds of still life moments captured by Yu-chan’s steady hand and keen eye.

Yu-chan then ran over to a different shelf, studying it for a few seconds until he pulled out another few albums. These held twenty years worth of odd photos of me, placed among other pictures of aunts, cousins and an uncle. I had no idea Yu-chan had taken any of these photos, but he managed to capture so many different phases of fashion and hairstyles, from the childhood bikinis and lifesaver to umbrellas that would become forgotten on trains. Yu-chan captured each event without ever disrupting the flow of life.

In the thousands of albums in Yu-chan’s collection, however, there are very few photos of himself. Yu-chan is unassuming, preferring to snap vignettes of his life through other people or places.

Before Yu-chan opened his restaurant to the evening customers, we parted ways. We made our way into the bustling Yokohama train station, a maze of transfer points and a massive underground mall filled with very high end designer clothing stores. The six of us – myself, husband, in-laws, my mother and cousin Ryu-chan as escort– were descending down an escalator that opened into the main station ticket machines. My mother managed to slip away from us, disappearing into the busy crowd, a tiny body blending into the dizziness of coffee shops, a flower vendor and commuters.

My mother was the type of person who never liked to become separated from her group. She was a patron of the department store paging system, even when I was well into.

Believing that she was somewhere looking for us, we all split into groups. My husband and mother-in-law went northward into the stores, my cousin went southward closer to the stations and I manned the grounds closest to where she disappeared, searching for a tiny body with curly hair that might be wandering around, perhaps even lost among the crowd.

I led my father-in-law into a passport photo booth and closed the thick curtain around him, wanting very much for him to rest his legs as we continued our search. His knees seemed to be held together by over sensitive nerve endings and fine porcelain bone, the casualty of jumping from planes over a span of a lifetime. The photo booth was a quiet break away from the restless, rushing crowd.

Ryu-chan, who gave up on his search, eventually joined my father-in-law in the photo booth, laughing heartily as he fished around his trousers for coins. He wanted to sit for a series of quick photos with my father-in-law, an opportunity to remember a rather amusing end to a long day. This photo booth was the selfies of their generation.

No one is immune to wanting a memory.

(c) 2014 Slow Suburban Death.  All rights reserved.

Published inJapanPhotosShort Stories

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