Saturday, July 20, 2013

Images of a Forgotten Borough

Fresh out of high school and headed for New York, we piled in Glynn’s yellow and white 1957 Plymouth Belvedere with the push button transmission and “Flite Sweep” styling, ecstatic with visions of The Big City and getting away from home. Not too sure where we would be sleeping for the two weeks of our time there, we planned on spending at least the first couple of nights at our friend Dee’s house on Staten Island, thirty minutes across the bay from Manhattan. Arriving in New York just after sunrise, we found our way to the South Street ferry that makes regular crossings to Staten Island. Once on the island, after some wrong turns and confused meandering, it was a surprise to finally to look up and see our friend’s name on a mailbox in front of a large old two-story blue Victorian house. None of us had imagined such a house only a few miles from the concrete canyons of Manhattan. 

Two days later we ended up finding a cheap hotel off Times Square and spending most of our two weeks in the Manhattan district, but we did have the chance on a few days to get a good look at Staten Island with friend Dee playing tour guide. 

Some years later, after I had begun calling New York home, I went back to Staten Island on more than a few occasions, day trips intended for the purpose of nothing more than exploration. It was still at that time a place ‘far removed’ from the tone and textures of life in Manhattan, and never failed to surprise me with sights or faces unexpected. It has been years since those visits to New York’s “forgotten borough” but much of it was brought back recently when I stumbled upon the photographs of Christine Osinski.

Originally from Chicago, Osinski studied first at the Art Institute of Chicago and later received an MFA from Yale. She lives in New York and has for many years taught at the Cooper Union. Her photographs have been exhibited at The Portland Art Museum, the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, La Casa Encendida in Madrid, The New York Public Library and The Museum of the City of New York. In the late 1970s Osinski and her husband lived for a while in Soho but then lost their lease. Soon after that the couple moved to Staten Island and ended up staying sixteen years.

Something about the Staten Island environment excited Osinski and in 1983 and ’84 she began a series of black and white photographs documenting the ordinary life around her. Reminded of her Chicago childhood, she found the people of Staten Island both familiar and exotic at the same time, focusing her camera’s eye on children, people at the beach, houses and block parties. In her own words she admits to “liking all of the crazy people and places.” Something at the edge of Osinski’s work hints at the photography of Diane Arbus, but in the end stands apart as an individual vision of the American condition. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Swallowed Up

Life in the wilderness among the dirt roads of eastern Florida brings at times the feeling of being swallowed up, of being devoured by the quiet roar of growth swelling outward from every leaf and blade of grass, a green world bristling with the buzz, the chirp and rasp of secret signals, for the most part an unseen world that churns like a breathing engine beneath a green exterior, under a coat of bark, around the whorl of roots—so far off the beaten path every moment is cheek by jowl with an uncountable variety of living things that strive, push, bite, fly, croak, sting and struggle voraciously through abbreviated lifetimes that often end as another’s food.

Walking across the yard in what looks like open space gets me tangled in the elaborate web of one more spider. Neither web nor spider is visible and I swat at sticky, invisible strands that cling like silken tape to arms and face. At the gate I lean over to open the lock and startle two fat brown lizards entwined on the gatepost propagating the species, and then my attention is snatched away by the sharp sting of a fire ant that has found my sockless toes inside a flimsy shoe. Nothing to do but kick the shoe off and scratch around for the fiery devil tormenting tender flesh. I count myself lucky it wasn’t one of the hairy and poisonous caterpillars that hatch from cocoons under the eaves and inch their way down the house walls to drop suddenly on shoulder or head.

From a chair in the backyard the grass looks like it might be visibly growing. I would almost bet it was shorter when I came outside a half hour earlier. Between the two camphor trees is a new patch of orange and black mushrooms, a type that lacks any beauty and comes out of the ground already gnarled. Sitting outdoors at this season and this time of day means that no amount of dedication can hold the focus on only one aspect. Arms, neck, ears and ankles are slathered in Skin So Soft to deter the mosquitos from draining my blood in double-time, but it does nothing for the large, black mud wasps who hover around and under my chair testing the wood for a choice spot to build a nest. Comforting to know that stings from these insects are rare.

One of the large gopher turtles that occasionally lumber out of the woods at the end of my backyard was here yesterday. I tried to entice him with a cut of watermelon but he went right past it, preferring instead the tender shoots of grass all around. A week ago I looked out from the back porch thinking it was another of the unwanted armadillos rooting among the tall oak trees and so unslung the BB gun to run it off. Only after two bright copper BBs pinged off the animal’s back did I realize it wasn't an armadillo at all but one of the gopher turtles, a shape unclear in the distance. No wonder the BBs provoked no reaction. Happy I wasn’t frightening one of the friendlies. Along with the rat snakes, black snakes and three resident marsh hawks, the turtles are welcome neighbors in this hotbox-petri dish that surrounds my four walls in a last frontier.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America