My Hometown

 

After eighteen years of growing up in a small town in western New York, I professed my heartfelt feelings by wanting to get as far away from it as I possibly could. I can’t stress that enough, I wanted to get the hell outta dodge and put that place far, far behind me.

I have bit of a love/hate relationship with my hometown.

When you’re a kid, it’s all about your block, your friends, baseball in fields behind the houses, climbing that huge Ash tree next to the house that doubled as a ladder to the roof, a dip in the Erie Canal on a hot summer day. Growing up, I loved my hometown, or at least my little piece of it.

Contrary to what some think, this is "New York" too.

 

Eighteen years later and all I could think of was to put that town behind me. I swore I’d never go back … except maybe for Christmas. Christmas dinner in an Italian household is something to behold.

Yeah… I’d go back for that.

You go out, see the world and make your way. You find yourself, lose yourself and find yourself again, but your hometown is always a part of you, whether you realize it or not. No matter how annoyed you might have been with your life in this quaint little town, you find yourself wanting to go back, you need to go back. At some point all is forgiven … well … most of it anyway.

 

 

It’s a “young” little Victorian town. Young in the sense that the university brings throngs of new faces every September, that seem to double the population. It’s a college town and the students bring with them a fresh pair of eyes. They infuse the town with different views from an endless variety of backgrounds. I think that being a “townie” exposed you to a wider view of the world. It gave me that “wanderlust,” it made me want to get out there and see some of it.

 

Going back years later you’re struck by the Yin and Yang. Sure… things have changed but a lot is still the same. Stately Victorian homes stand in contrast to the rigid modern architecture of the high school, or the big box department store/strip mall on the edge of town. Older neighborhoods (like the block I grew up on) are in contrast to the boxy angular apartments that fill what used to be the empty lot where you used to play.

 

Just when you think it’s all changed and the hometown you remember is gone, you walk past a spot that still has a memory waiting for you. It’s as if it was sitting there all this time just waiting for you to come along, pick it up and remember.

Battlefields

Belleau Wood, Antietam, Okinawa, they’re all real, physical places, you can stand there, “on this spot,” the battle was won or lost, history changed. It’s a tangible thing that, for some, puts the moment in perspective.

For others, there are no broad sunlit fields with the occasional statue or memorial. For the flier, it’s a battlefield that exists in the rarified air at 30,000 feet. It’s for the pilot, the aircrew, to invite you to their battlefield through their stories. There are no tours through their ethereal combat zone, the cockpit is much too small.

For the ten-man crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress, the “battlefield” is the limited space inside an airplane only a little over 74 feet long and clearly designed around the measurements of a skinny 19 year old kid from the Midwest, or Alabama, or Brooklyn.

Over 12,000 of these aircraft were built in the few short years between 1936 and 1945. Today, most of them are gone, shot down over Germany, lost over New Guinea, scrapped in desert boneyards. A few are in museums, a very few, have been restored and still fly today.

A gleaming silver B-17G dubbed Aluminum Overcast is one of the last of its kind, meticulously maintained both inside and out. It’s quiet and empty now, but in a few short hours she’ll come alive. Four huge throbbing engines, ready to take this icon of another time for one more sortie, one more “mission.”

This was the stage where an extremely violent death or a leisurely flight on a sunlit afternoon, played out some 75 years ago. A cramped, cold little battlefield, one of hundreds, spread out in carefully choreographed formations. Faded black and white photos only hint at what this scene must have looked like five miles above an angry countryside.

The airplane bounces in rough air, metal and wood clanking, groaning as if it was alive. The smell of oil, rubber and sweat make it easy to imagine the floor ankle deep in spent .50 caliber brass, the cordite smoke that stings your eyes.

Today, sunlight pours in through windows instead of holes left by jagged pieces of flak. Your flight is an all too brief fifteen minutes or so, nowhere near the eight hours or more you might have spent on a trip in 1944.

After a moment at the waist gunner’s position, you make your way the length of the airplane, through the bomb bay, crawling into the nose of the big bomber. The bombardier sat right there, exposed. It’s like looking out of a fishbowl, the whole world around you and a Norden bombsight in front of you, a reminder of what this airplane was designed to do.

It does make you think.

Going Home

The past few weeks have been particularly difficult. I suddenly found myself in an empty house, the house I grew up in. It’s a place I know intimately, every nook, every corner. Not entirely certain of what to do next, I cooked. I made myself some dinner and filled the kitchen with smells that make the empty room feel full again, garlic, tomatoes, the yeasty fragrance of fresh bread, the sizzle of pancetta in an old cast iron skillet.

 

That heavy black skillet. It’s the pan I remember steak and eggs being cooked in, nearly every morning, as my father made breakfast before school. I got up early, he was up earlier. It was a brief moment when it was just the two of us. There were times we barely spoke, “Do you want some?” Sometimes entire conversations took place with barely a word.

I walked around the house looking at deeply familiar things, they looked different, the whole house was different. I suppose out of habit, I found myself taking pictures, desperately trying to capture something before it was gone.

Growing up, the basement was a playground, a classroom. Sawdust covered everything, the air full of the smell of wood and varnish. Coffee cans carefully labeled with the size of every nut, bolt, screw and nail anyone might ever need.

 

 

Outside is the scene of countless summertime dinners and clam bakes, a patio of carefully laid brick, a stone fireplace centerpiece. The garden delivered not only color from countless flowers, but thyme, parsley, rosemary, tomatoes, squash, eggplant … it was its own little neighborhood ecosystem.

 

 

 

This is the place I played, I grew, I learned the things they don’t teach in school (a terrible cliche isn’t it). Now it’s quiet. The plants need water. It feels as if someone has just left and in a minute or two, the door will open and …  everything will be ok.

Soon there will be another summer, that deep green everywhere you look, the birds, those damned squirrels. It’s different now, but If I stop for a minute, I can hear it, the cacophony of another summer in this house, or a fall, or any other season.  I will always carry it inside of me and I can go home whenever I want. If you don’t mind, I’m going outside to play.

 

Asbury Park

This town clinks like empty beer bottles at 2AM

Bleeds like steam from old pipes

Crackles like the final 5 seconds of an old LP

— graffiti left inside the old casino building

Asbury Park, New Jersey

It’s good to see the town crawling back into the light, a busy boardwalk full of shoppers, bistros with hungry patrons and a beach full of coconut scented sunbathers. It sure wasn’t that way the first time I walked down Kingsley Avenue.

Frankly, I found the decay oddly appealing, the colors and textures of rust and cracked plaster, the remains of Tillie’s neon hanging off his brow like some sort of disheveled cowlick. The last couple of local watering holes were only proof that there was some sort of life left in this windswept no-mans-land between Kingsley and Ocean avenues.

I went to the shore that first time, on a cold, dank President’s Day weekend. The chill and spitting surf just added to the ambiance, fitting perfectly with the Springsteen lyrics swirling in my head. I was there as a rock and roll pilgrim, waiting for the next quartet of local kids to mount the stage at the Stone Pony and take the world by storm.

They didn’t get to the promised land that night, they did play hard and gave it all they had. Musical pilgrims themselves, I’m sure they tried to soak in a little bit of the luck that their heros might have left behind.

Convention Hall is still a beautiful building even if it does seem to be one step ahead of a wrecking ball. Faint echos of roller derbys and Led Zeppelin still drift through the halls. At the opposite end of the beach the bookend to the hall is all but gone. The Palace, a ghost— The Casino, a mere tunnel between Asbury and it’s more “proper” victorian cousin, Ocean Grove.

I’m glad I saw it when I did. Carefully crawling through chain link fences and around sheets of plywood to find my shot, stumbling across some curious graffiti. For a little while, on those cold empty days and nights,  Asbury Park was for me, more than “that place Springsteen sings about,” it was quite literally, each and every word off the first three records.

Right in Your Backyard

I drove past it nearly every day.

There are things in our own backyard that deserve a second look, or even a third.  Guilty of taking the same route to work and then back home. Muscle memory and a travel mug full of coffee and before you know it you’ve clocked in and almost as quickly, returned home.  I missed it again.

This time I finally stopped and took a longer look.

Good Shot, Bad Shot

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”

Sometimes people see something different in your image, something that even you didn’t see.

During Bruce Springsteen’s 2006 Devils and Dust tour, I was asked by an editor to shoot for his publication. I said yes. Are you kidding, of course I said yes. I grabbed my camera (and film, yes … film), hopped in the car headed on down the road.

The venue was as moody and dark as the album. When you’re in the business of “collecting light” the lack of it can make for a challenging evening. When in doubt, load the camera and shoot. I knew even before the film was developed that I probably wasn’t going to like the result but I knew I had done the best I could under the circumstances. I filed away the negs and was happy that I had been able to stay for the show.

Fast forward a decade and a phone call from a photographer friend who asked me if I had shot anything during that tour. I admitted that I had, but I had never been happy with … she stopped me and quickly said, ”someone will email you, send a half dozen at least!”

An email did come and I spent an evening pulling the negatives, trying not to think too much about how dark they were. I rescanned a few, gathered everything together and sent them off.

A day or two later, one of those images, one that I had never really thought much of, had been picked for the cover of a live, Bruce Springsteen, Devils and Dust tour cd release. It became part of a series of live performances being offered through brucespringsteen.net, his official website.

That dark, grainy photo, one I had never thought much of, has since become one of my very favorites.

Did I save the images because I was a fan? Probably, but I would like to think that in the back of my mind I thought “just in case” as I slipped the proof sheets and strips of exposed film into a binder. Lesson learned; save the work anyway, and when the word goes out and someone asks to see it … send it to them. You never know.