Angela and I stopped to investigate the South Williamsburg street. We lived in Queens (not together, mind you – the sexual need between this former cheerleader and me had long since expired) and were exploring a new locale. Neighborhood pride and a grass-isn't-greener mentality often create a chasm between boroughs, but we'd scoured most of our Greek neighborhood and craved new surroundings. Hence, Williamsburg. Angela and I had expected to see ex-industrial complexes remade as hipster habitation. And we saw plenty of that. But there was something else.
"Angela," I said, "stop for a minute and look around. Tell me what you see." We were in front of a basketball court. Young Latino boys had game. A gutted building sat on the far side of the street.
"What the hell are all these pictures doing here?" she asked. "There's hundreds everywhere."
It looked like a Kodak Beirut. Snapshots were strewn across the better part of a block. We stooped next to a car's rear tire and scooped a handful of color snaps. They appeared to be of a party. Casually dressed young white women looking mildly soused had their hands in the air. Maybe they were raising the roof. Maybe they were waving to the photographer.
"They look like they're hip-hop hooraying," Angela said. I flipped the pic over and saw the date stamp read "01.07.98." Naughty By Nature was certainly still in the public flavor.
I snagged two photos fluttering in the street. The first was a vertical black-and-white print of a pudgy woman in a black shirt dancing against a wall. A sexier white woman (skinner – let the prejudices fly) danced next to her. She wore a scooped black long-sleeved shirt and was rapturously smushing her hand to her chest. The skinny woman appeared to be staring at the pudgy one, but prejudices and preconceptions made me believe she was ogling a hunk just beyond the pudgy lass. Yes, an Abercrombie animal with a well vested stock portfolio and no venereal diseases. Yes, that's what was happening. The other picture featured a lanky woman dressed in a jester's suit. She hugged a smiling black man sporting a shock-red Afro. Halloween? The afterglow of a dominatrix scene? This one puzzled. I showed Angela. "Maybe they're in love?" she said.
Angela showed me her scores – three black-and-white gelatin prints. One displayed a pastoral beach scene. A woman with long brownish-seeming hair wore a bikini. She was crouching, hugging the two one piece-clad little girls flanking her. No one smiled. Another photo presented a blurred image of a mother sitting in a chair, cradling a two-year-old. I think. The shakey effect obscured much of the image, but smiles peeked through. A third photo offered a little boy and girl – both wearing knee-high socks – holding hands. The image seemed stolen from another era. Maybe the '20s? The '30s? The boy clutched a wide-brimmed hat perched on his head. Suspenders suspend his knickers. But the paper looked new, printed in the last decade.»
"Smell this," I said to Angela, handing her the coulda-been-old photo. A hallmark of a good friend is trust. Angela pressed her button-nose to the photo and inhaled. "Doesn't smell like anything," she said, wiping photo residue off her nose.
"Exactly," I said. "So did somebody reprint family photos? You know, old negatives or something?"
"I dunno," she said. "Your guess is as good as mine."
And guesses were our province. Each image we'd examined was disparate; little overlap between people, places, time. Granted, our population sample was slim, but what was this, Kodak Hell, where bad photos died? Angela and I walked around, searching for reasons. Maybe a photo-processing lab burned down? Perhaps the wrecking ball reduced a squatter tenement to rubble?
I hoped for one of those conclusions. You know, something to make this adventure a great cocktail anecdote. "Did I ever tell you about the time the photo lab was fire-bombed?" I envisioned myself whispering to a comely indie rockette sipping a cold Bud draft. But as I've learned from a quarter-century of losing the girl and acrimonious job splits, endings tie as neatly as a first-grader's knotted shoelaces.
"Come here, Josh, and look at this trash bag," Angela said, beckoning me from the rubble I was examining and over to a corner near the basketball courts. Inside the full-size trash bag were hundreds, thousands of photos. They spilled out the bag's corner rip. The wind had carried them aloft. I poked around the bag with a stick. More gelatin prints. Party photos. Graduation. White families. Black families. Babies. Adults. Teenagers smoking from bongs. Had a landlord confiscated his tenants' belongings and evicted them to raise rent? Were these photos all that remained of a lifetime of belongings? Why was I jumping to conclusions?
I put my poking stick down and stepped back. Angela followed suit. A ramshackle man with a rope belt had joined us. He examined the pictures, too.
"This is really creepy," I said, stating the obvious because someone needed to. I glanced around the neighborhood, trying to find the hidden cameras.
"You know, Josh, I think it's time for us to leave," Angela said. I thought so, too. This wasn't Jeopardy. There were no answers, and all our questions hung there as we walked away, fluttering in the wind.