The Blind Photographing the Blind



Jay St. & York St. brooklyn ny 11201

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Dumbo

We had arrived a little late to the Soapbox Car Derby, and the races were already in progress. Hot Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn, occasional wafts of East-River-in-July. First concern, identifying the car of our friend. (It was, without any bias, certainly the best-looking of the cars: a sleek wheeled coffin with a little cockpit for the driver, complete with roses fastened to its hood and punkrocky crown spray-painted on the front.) We’d come just in time to see him whiz down the hill, racing what looked like a dog house on wheels–both of them skidding wildly. No permission, no permit, just an artists collective and their shoddy constructions. A folding table displayed free Yoo-Hoos and Star Crunches, hand-printed minicomics, and The Trophy (painted plywood).

We found our cohorts and a shady spot from which to squint at the racers and leap out of the way as they sped past. Pretty well-attended, really. And so many people with cameras.

“Wait a minute, why are there so many people with cameras?”

“I don’t know,” said B. B was the lady-love of our racing friend. “But they’re not from around here. Look at their shoes.”

We looked around. It was true. There was definitely something suspicious about their attire. Gleaming walking shoes. Khaki photographer’s vests bulbous with pockets. And those cameras–“Nice lenses,” sneered one of our group, an aspiring photographer herself. They were extraordinary, like a new breed of elephants, trotting up and down the hill, swinging those impossibly long and expensive tusks. And as you looked around it grew easier to pick them out just from their faces–these goofy, beaming grins.

Meanwhile the artkids were doing their best to ignore this. The racers sped down the hill. In an exciting incident, the wheelchair-car blasted apart, the surfboard-car dove into it, the boys tangled for a moment before wheelchair-car guy went whirling towards the curb, mussing his mohawky hair and scraping his tattooed forearm. The photographers were beside themselves, snapping away. They became bolder as the races progressed. One pot-bellied man positioned himself in the center of the road as the cars came hurdling down, leaping away at the last moment.

Finally an orange-haired girl in a vintage dress tapped a photographer’s arm and demanded an explanation. “It’s our Urban Landscapes Photography Seminar!” said the middle-aged woman, nodding her head earnestly, before toiling up the hill under the weight of her enormous tripod. The eye-rollings were almost audible.

Among our little group bemused tolerance quickly moldered into annoyance, ostensibly because these photographers were making it difficult to see. Here were these parent-like people, beside themselves with excitement. In turn, we were sighing at them. “We’re like their little monkeys,” someone muttered. But it was more than that. We–most of us nice suburban kids from New Jersey or the Midwest–were their Urban Landscapes.

It was soon noted that our friend, J, had not raced in a while. As the ironic this-is-my-soapbox-car guy fell off his P.E. class scooter for the third time, skidding his pants into shreds, B. went up the hill to check on J.

The report? “Yeah, they’re posing up there. Leaning on their cars and stuff. For the photographers.”

Then the Urban Landscapes teacher–a balding man in the most complex of all the vests–raised his arm and beckoned his students and led them away, into the night and back to their condos.

The strange thing was the recognizable level of energy depletion in the Urban Landscape. There weren’t so many cheers or outlandish crashes. It was as if a kind of symbiosis had been interrupted. Why had we all gathered here? It was difficult to remember. Soon the crowd started to lazily disperse, long before the races had finished. Maybe it was that the Yoo-Hoo had run dry. Maybe it was the late afternoon heat slanting off the buildings. Or maybe it was that no one, suddenly, seemed to be watching.

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