Thursday, December 19, 2013

Follow Me

Every year, the holidays get in the way of my cultural life. Ho, ho, ho.

See, the problem is, I don't like to shop any time of year, much less when the whole world is out there doing it.

But I went out and played consumer today, even buying a gift so large it fit in neither my backseat nor my trunk.

Just as the employee who'd carried it to my car was suggesting he take it back inside so I could get my money back, I had a holiday brainstorm.

What were the chances a stranger would do me a Christmas favor?

Curious to find out, I walked up to a man getting into a shiny truck and asked if I led, would he mind schlepping my humongous gift back to J-Ward for me.

Only after I asked a favor of someone I didn't know did it occur to me to introduce myself.

Long story short, John agreed and dutifully followed me home, wished me a merry Christmas and disappeared, probably never to be heard from again.

Kind of warms your heart, doesn't it?

But it's not just shopping that dominates these days. I don't mind the occasional party, but they're not terribly occasional this month.

So with friends and family on tap for the foreseeable future, tonight was all about me.

I started at one of my long-time favorite places where I knew I'd be guaranteed two things: black bean nachos and thrash.

821 was pretty slow when I got there and claimed a seat at the bar, but the thrash was blasting and I refused the menu when it was offered.

I don't need no stinkin' menu.

Before long, I was joined on both sides by pairs of beer-drinking women, one telling me how bad the food had been at 525 at the Berry Burk and the other talking about how hard it is to Christmas shop and not buy stuff for yourself.

I really don't have that problem. Meanwhile, I plugged away at the mound of beans, cheese and chips, thinking how even the anemic-looking tomato chunks and bright green shreds of lettuce had a holiday look.

Fortunately, the music was very un-holiday-like.

When I left 821, it was for Black Iris, who get my vote for the most compelling new cultural space and gallery.

Tonight they were doing a talk by photographer Tod Seelie, whose new book, "Bright Nights: Photographs of Another New York" had recently shown up in Time magazine as one of the best photo books of the year.

Before we got down to the talk, there was mingling, food and beer with Marty from Steady Sounds playing (non-holiday) music (but not thrash).

It was during that time I got a chance to talk to some of the Black Iris people about the "Low Frequency Travel Agency" show they've currently got going on that had rocked my world, here.

I was thrilled to hear one of the Black Iris guys refer to my travel log observations as "poetic." And here I thought I was just another woman with a musical suitcase.

But then I was sad to hear musician Nelly Kate, who'd written and sung the music in the suitcases, talk about how she lets so many people know about her artistic endeavors, but can only count on about ten of them to make the effort to participate.

Out of hundreds. That's pretty tragic.

The talk began with Tod saying how hard it was to summarize a book's worth of photographs shot in New York representing fifteen years of work, a valid point, while photos from the book showed on the wall behind him.

Explaining that he didn't work like a traditional photojournalist, scheduling shoots and asking permission, he went on to tell stories about the scenes and subculture he shot, always seeking to convey a sense of narrative in his photos.

There were parties in Harlem basements, scenes from the annual Bike Kill (which looked a lot like Richmond's annual Slaughterama), lots of punk shows and other DIY-style happenings.

"My goal is to make the photograph as much like being there as possible," he explained, having been inspired by his first punk show which, he said, demonstrated to him that there was a world of options out there that were much bigger than he had imagined.

His stories of becoming part of the subculture were fascinating for how they illuminated Nelly Kate's earlier point.

It's all there for the taking, but you have to make the effort to put yourself into it.

Tod talked about how he and a group of people had decided to set up a speakeasy in an abandoned water tower.

Unlike some of the stuff he did that lasted only one night, the speakeasy was a six-week undertaking that began with a "starter cell" of people and a need for secrecy, so no online posting, surely a challenge for many.

The starter cell people were each given a watch with instructions for the speakeasy for them to give to one person as an invitation, so the group grew but without the originators knowing who might be invited.

We heard about a four-year project where "junk rafts," impressive-looking creations made of anything and everything, were built and sailed down four different waterways.

During the Q & A, someone asked Tod if he ever had trouble getting people to let him shoot.

Saying that he took the "invisible fly on the wall approach," he thought his success had to do with not getting up in people's faces to shoot.

The subcultures in NYC he was talking about were all ones that exist here, albeit probably not as multi-cultural or in numbers as large, but we've definitely got a strong bike culture, there's plenty of dumpster-diving that goes on, I've been to pop-up alley bars and DIY house and yard shows are regular events.

Tod's book showed the multiple layers of a city's culture as seen through the lens of one guy who went to the city to go to school and became so entranced and entrenched with the place that he didn't leave.

Huh. Sounds an awful lot like all those people I know who came to VCU and somehow never left.

I just hope they appreciate that we have many elements of NYC's vibrant counter-culture without the madding crowds and mile-high rents. And the best way to keep the scene vibrant is for people to be part of it.

In fact, the best thing Tod said tonight could be my motto.

"Being a participant and a supporter of the scene is just as important as being a documentarian."

I like to think of myself as all three...buoyed by the kind of nerve that has me asking strangers for holiday favors.

Come to think of it, our little caravan with the unruly gift sticking up out of stranger John's truck would have made a great photograph.

'Cause you know, the lights are bright in Richmond, too.


  1. K...sometimes you say more when you say nothing...[i mean that in a nice way].. so K, karen or Shortcake...have a Merry Little Christmas..


  2. My problem with the all the fun stuff going on in Richmond is that I never hear or read anything about it. I read the paper daily, listen to local radio at work (no choice) and most times miss something fun because I didn't know it was happening. If not for your blog I wouldn't have known about the low frequency deal. I'm planning for it after the new year so thank you!


  3. Merry Christmas to you, too, cw. Hope you still read me in 2014!

    Sharon, It is tough to keep up with all the good stuff that goes on. Style's calendar helps, as does Facebook as long as you "like" places that put on events like galleries, music venues, book stores. And the more events you go to, the more you hear about upcoming ones. You can always leave a comment on the blog asking me what's coming up for a certain night.

    I'm thrilled you're doing the "Low Frequency Travel Agency" because you read about it here. They're keeping the musical suitcases indefinitely, so everyone has plenty of time to still do it.

    Thanks so much for reading!