This essay appears in the just released book, "Lost and Found: Stories From New York."
1. Rage Reacclimation: Waiting in line for a press credential
At the southwest corner of "The Big Tent" in Bryant Park, a snaking, huddled mass of photographers gathers in the cold, waiting for access to the warm, partitioned press cell within. Fashion Week has arrived once again and we, the rabble of visual collection, are worming towards the issuance of glossy laminated press passes without which we can achieve nothing for the next seven days.
While waiting in this line, I am reacquainted with the photographic pool that specializes in Fashion Week. I can say with authority that at least sixty percent of all photographers are mean-spirited, egotistical thugs (significantly better percentages than those of lawyers and politicians). "Cocksuckers," is a sometimes apt description. But amongst the cadre of photographers who attend this event every year, there are individuals who set new standards of untrustworthiness. Looking at this idle group of slouching predators I wonder: Who here has already been through the witness protection program? Then I remember what this week will involve.
There will be a lot of territorial pissing and positioning for a tiny piece of real estate on a press riser the size of my kitchen. There will be hours of utter boredom and waiting while watching near-maddening displays of petty vanity from all points of the compass. There will be whinging. There will be frayed nerves. There may even be another airborne chair incident (Unable to take it any longer, a photographer named Dino once heaved a chair at another photographer's head at the end of a show). Invariably there will be a photographer who is losing his or her struggle with obesity--a man with a name like "Dooshko"--who will arrive 10 minutes before a show and attempt to insert himself directly in front of me.
And throughout, there will be the celebrity/paparrazzi melee; pariah dogs falling all over themselves to photograph Katie Couric or Nicole Ritchie, possibly together. And for what?
2. Racist Note:
It’s always the Italians. Three are cutting the line. They’re ahead of me now. I tell them they’re going to have to go to the end of the line, and one of them looks me in the eye and tells me, in broken, lilting English, that his friends were already here an hour ago but went away to get lunch and he was just saving their spot. I tell him I was here two hours ago and didn’t see them. There’s further abject explaining with pacifying hand gestures. I’m not buying it. There’s a stare down which I think I win.
But they still don’t move.
3. The Tyranny of the List:
Nowhere in America are there more ineffectual PR flunkies walking around with lists on clipboards than at Fashion Week. To get in, you’re supposed to be on a list, to go backstage, check the list. While waiting for the show to begin, people will approach you, ask for your identity, and then add you to new mysterious lists. In this way the list-nazis of Fashion Week are taking a cue from the growth industry of national security. Lists--and requisite telecommunication head-sets-- are the new talismen of control.
Then I see it: the very first list. It’s in the hands of a Junior Varsity, unassertive PR floozie with heels. She is veering aimlessly through the crowd, a queen bee drunk on royal jelly. She is empowered by her clipboarded list. Like mindless drones, the photographers keep stepping out of line, swarming around her, trying to see if they are on this list.
During all of fashion week 2005, I wasn’t on a single list. My office either neglected to put me on any, or the flak routinely bobbled the ball. Ultimately this didn’t matter. The list is just a ruse, an oar for steering. If you show up with the correct laminated press pass ready to photograph the show, it doesn’t matter if you’ve made the list or bear a terrible resemblance to a former member of Aerosmith. You are wanted inside.
4. Serge’s Rude Buddy:
There shouldn’t be fashion shows held in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel. Three blocks north of Bryant Park, the Algonquin is a satellite venue for shows, sometimes avant-garde, that want to vamp it up in front of velvet curtains and elaborate tea settings. The problem is there isn’t enough space. The photo area is sadistically small and the models at the "HollyWould" show on the first Friday night did not have enough room to stretch out. They were also moving too quickly.
Frustrated by the speed of the models, some of the photographers start shouting at them to slow down. The median age of the models appears to be 17 and they don’t understand what is being shouted at them. All they appear to pick up on is the anger. They advance even more quickly but with unhappy scowls. The photographers become more abusive. It’s like witnessing the evolution of a doomed marriage in time lapse. In 20 seconds everything’s gone to shit. I’m having a hard time believing what I’m hearing from the photographers. Unrepeatable oaths.
A cell phone rings. It is answered, behind me, by a photographer with a French accent.
"What are you doing calling me now, Serge? I am shooting a show!” Pause. “What do you want?”
I take his photograph instead.
5. The Starbucks Troller
I walk down the street to the nearest Starbucks. It’s at 41st Street and Broadway. I throw my stuff down and begin the process of downloading, editing, captioning, and sending my photographs to the office. There’s a game I play, more of a neurotic compulsion, where I try to see how rapidly I can accomplish all the tasks required of the transmitting process and still get a cup of coffee.
A young, pretty, dark haired woman behind me asks in foreign English, "How much does it cost to get a shoot?"
I tell her it depends. I ask her if she wants to be a model.
No, she is just curious. She thinks "the people who run the models" might be untrustworthy. I look in to her face and she stares back at me intensely. I invite her over to my table and she sits down opposite me. The speed routine crumbles. Magda is her name. She’s from Poland on a visitor’s visa. She’s been in the US for two weeks and is looking for work as an au pair. The mere mention of that job title: I instantly ache to take her in to the bathroom and show her my favorite yoga position.
She’s magnificent. I’m married. I also have this thing called a job to attend to.
Magda makes me guess her age. I say 21. She says I’m right; I decide she’s 19. She performs this little trick where she peeks at a well-worn fortune from a fortune cookie, then tries to hide it. I say what does your fortune say. She hands it over. It says, "A friendly chat may lead to romance."
I ask her to tell me a secret.
She thinks about it for a little while, then she releases it, in a whisper in my ear:
"I believe in angels."
6. Benjamin Cho show:
The trick is to get to the site of a show early so you can pick your spot. I get to the Benjamin Cho show about two hours early.
This show is happening inside the ABC carpet showroom on Broadway near 19th Street. Soporific, dark-skinned Indian men are slowly moving carpets around on dollys. Models and make-up people are everywhere; the models all appear to be on muscle relaxants and have voluminous hair;
A half hour before the show is supposed to start, someone comes up behind me and starts yanking on the milk crate I’m sitting on.
"Can I have this? If you’ll just get up, I’ll take this."
I’m talking to a New York Times photographer to my left but stop mid-sentence to turn and face this new effrontery. A man with white hair, pale skin and slightly recessed eyes, has descended in to my field of view. I see from the credential hanging around his neck that he’s from Vogue . His name’s Eric. He’s probably 40.
"Are you actually thinking you might take this seat right out from under me?" I ask, incredulous.
"Well yeah, someone left that crate laying around and I want it."
I explain to him that I bought this milk crate at Staples and brought it here for the exact purpose of sitting on it and if he thinks he’s going to take it… I raise and cock my left fist.
I’m the kind of person who wants to see a fist fight break out during fashion week but I’m not generally interested in taking part in one. I don’t like being punched for one thing, especially in the nose, and I’m not a particularly gifted brawler. None the less, I am now fully prepared to unleash a combination of punches on the face of this great white whale before me.
He backs off a little and chuckles insanely--to signify that he’s only kidding.
My desire to hurt him fades. He appears to be suffering from something, an illness of rage and social dementia and it has twisted him inside.
For the next hour I listen to him give genuinely funny commentary about the people passing by our perch. "I know," he says at one point. "But this is my year. It’s the Chinese year of the Cock."
The photographers are tiring, the models too are starting to trip in their heels.
And Salman Rushdie may not get out much, but his wife with the thundering scar on her right arm appears to be everywhere.
7. Vanitas, Vanitatum, all is Vanity:
I felt as though I achieved a state of Zen perfection during the Derek Lam show. Every model who approached down a 200 foot runway, stared me down, right in to my glass. Out of 25 models, I was 25 for 25. EVERY SINGLE ONE. As they approached, I felt as though I was the only one in the room and they wanted to give me some…Lam. There must have been 20 still photographers behind me. With the music booming, I went in to a keen and pleasurable state, a trance of visual hunger satiation.
For a tiny, fleeting moment, I know the genius of vanity.
I mill the ‘strong nuclear’ bond that exists between model (shoot me) and photographer (show me)--there is hatred in both sets of wanting.
I paced myself and I drank it in, digitally. And when it was over, I fled out the nearest available exit with everyone else, not looking to left or right, feeling dirty for having been party to so much desire.
This essay appears in the just released book, "Lost and Found: Stories From New York."