Scumbags with Cameras

by Thomas Beller

04/02/2003

W 64th St & Broadway, New York, NY 10023

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

Photographs by Alexej Steinhardt and Thomas Beller

Click here for more information about the 360 One VR

When not in use however, the attachment comes with a plastic jar that screws over the mirror ball, to protect it. The plastic jar makes it look downright lethal, weird, and mad-scientistish, and I was a little concerned about wandering around the streets of New York with this thing; it seemed plausible that someone might mistake it for a germ container or some weapon of mass destruction and get hysterical.

On a more mundane note, you have to be careful about whose picture you take.

My friend Alexej and I went out for a drive with the idea of taking some of these panaromas and right away, in the oranges and apples aisle at Fairway, on 130th Street, the issue of privacy came up. We took one snap and were then told that we had to ask for permission. I asked the manager for permission, but he said he needed it in writing.

Alexej was surprised at the hassle.

"People get very nervous when they hear about web sites and photographs,"I said. "It all sounds like anthropology or pornography."

On Eighth avenue and 51st street Alexej jumped out and snapped a picture next to some construction workers.

I watched the scene reflected in my rear view mirror. He took the picture, and the two guys in hard hats eating lunch nearby said something to him. He moved closer. They asked him a question.

People can be very curious about The 360 One VR. They want to know what it is. They ask questions and talk and maybe try and touch it. They want to touch it like it was a pet.

But these were construction workers, so I also had to entertain the possibility that they were starting to give Alexej some shit and were just winding him up. He showed them the camera and made some movements that were either representative of someone enthusiastically showing off their gadget, or of someone trying to appease a couple of irate guys who were sabout to start throwing punches. The scene played out in the rear view mirror.

Then he came back to the car, which was idling.

"Those guys were really friendly," he said. "They were really interested in the camera. I think they almost asked me to take their picture."

We drove on. For some reason, the picture did not come out.

The streets of Manhattan are, in my opinion, fairly blithe these days, all things considered. The anxiety is internalized, but the action goes on in a familiar way and in some instances there is that snow-storm or black-out friendliness popping up. There are also a lot of frayed nerves.

In mid-town, police are everywhere. They are on horses, on foot, in cars, in little traffic buggies. But though they were undoubtedly being vigilant about potential terrorism, they are also being vigilant about parking infractions. "No standing," is a sign that you have to pay attention to in midtown.

Our efficient mayor has left his mark on the use of cars and their behavior when on the island. The penalty for a ticket is now $110 dollars. Bloomberg is putting a tax on car ownership. And it’s a good thing! In a way he is in league with those activists who have been running around town putting these very well designed white on red stickers that say "Driving" on stop signs right under "Stop." As in: "Stop Driving."

In small text beneath it encourages people to walk and take mass transportation.

Rudy, as we are supposed to now think of him, was constantly on the look out for ways to make Manhattan hospitable out-of-towners, the very people whose idea of going somewhere is synonymous with getting in a car (which is how a large part of the country outside New York and a few other cities thinks, really). Now Bloomberg is using the laws of the city to counter that.

I’m all in favor.

But why are those police cars stationed around Grand Central Station constantly having their lights blink and flash like some disaster has just occurred? The flashing lights are not a warning, they are automatic blood pressure increasers.

It began to snow. On April Fools, the weather played a joke. Beautiful little buds were sprouting out of soil, and a tiny hint of green, a wash of it, was apparent on some trees, but snow fell on the city and it was grey.

All the Construction workers were dressed for the cold. There is a lot of construction going on around town. The season of the wide open empty spaces, best symbolized by the strange absence of the Columbus Circle Coliseum, are gradually being filled up (best exemplified by the AOL Time Warner building that is now nearly complete at that same site).

Add to that the many road works that commence in the warmer weather and, even though it was snowing, you had a lot of construction workers on the street.

Across from Lincoln Center, a giant crater about three stories deep was visible behind the blue wood perimeter. It was like being at the edge of a cliff. An orange scoop was reaching down into the maw and pulling up dirt. Hard hats swarmed over the infrastructure. It was like a Sebastiao Salgado photograph. It was teeming.

The pictures on this page are 360 panoramic images.

If you do not have Quicktime (and you’ll know if there are no pictures visible even after a minute), Download it here.

These are not static pictures. You can move them left and right, up and down.
To move the image:
Hold down mouse button and drag mouse in desired direction.

"It’s going to be big," said a construction worker standing there waving people by with a red plastic flag. We both turned to look into the pit.

"How big?"

"Oh, thirty five stories at least," he said.

At one point there was a hole in the wall and we stuck the camera through and took a snap. In the back of my mind I was thinking about privacy. How far from someone should you be when taking a street scene? There were not many faces nearby. But the last shot we took, near the walk-in entrance of the site, got someone’s attention, and as we were walking away I heard a voice call out behind me.

"Hey," said the guy’s voice. "Is that a camera?"

Some people take a coffee break, but there was no doubt that the guy who was calling after us was on a fight break. I turned to see one of the construction workers. Short grey hair, a hard face, his sweatshirt unzipped, a bounce in his step. The veiled cordiality of his voice, it sounded bad.

"Yeah!" I replied. But I did not stop walking.

"Yeah?" he said. Then: "Are you one of those scumbags walking around town taking pictures?"

"No, no!" I said, still sort of faking cheer, and still walking. I turned around and that was the end of it.

Afterwards, Alexej suggested that it was unclear what his problem was. Maybe it was a privacy thing. Maybe there were some people in he had read about…

"No no no," I said. "He knew who we were. We were the scumbags who think we shouldn’t be at war. We’re the guys with the fancy funny camera which he is going to smash into our face for afternoon refreshments."

Alexej was not convinced.

I referred him to the scene described by Gerald Howard in his "The Day the War Started" (which appears on this site). The time was 1970, and Howard described a peace march downtown, near Wall Street. The construction workers who were then building the World Trade Center all came over to beat the shit out of the protesters while some cops watched. That, I felt, was the subtext of the man’s walking out to yell at us.

Either way, we agreed that when someone uses the word scumbag like that it is best to keep walking. He really punched that word. Whatever scumbags he was thinking of, he really hated them.

Looking back on it, I’m impressed at how well he had us pegged. And it was not because of our beards. I think it was because the site in question is directly across from Lincoln Center and therefor my guard was down. Lincoln Center: The Arts with a capital A, the red carpet of the opera house, and those dreamy Chagal’s, where unteathered scumbag sympathizers float through the air.

Everything is temporary.

**

Except, perhaps, The Naked Cowboy.

He was standing on 45th street and Broadway playing the guitar in his white briefs and cowboy hat while snowflakes fell around him. From across the street, a hot dog vendor looked on.

When asked if he had seen the naked cowboy before, he said: "Seen him before? He’s been coming out here for five years!"

"In his underwear?"

"Yes! Three or four times a day he is out there, in the middle of winter. He’s very strong."

Up close the Naked Cowboy was pretty much naked. Other than his boots, his cowboy hat, and his white briefs, it was just him. His skin was covered in goosbumps and he had shaved his chest and legs, so you could really see them. He took a moment off from strumming his guitar to shake an admirers hand, and to wave at a couple of gigling women.

"Come on," he said to all who passed. "Take a picture!"

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