Fred Smith, of Choctaw Books, July 2014
Polaroid 600 // Impossible Project B&W
Archive for the ‘Polaroids’ Category
In July of 1954, a person named Dewey Phillips was playing records and broadcasting live on the radio from the Hotel Chisca in downtown Memphis. People were still playing music like they always had, but they’d figured out how to contain the vibrations in the air made when fingers plucked metal strings, wooden sticks hit drum, a larynx warbled. They captured the sounds and carved them into a flat piece of sturdy circular plastic. This was called a record. You could play a record by running a tiny piece of metal over it at a certain speed. When you did that, you could hear the music etched into the record, even if it had been sung five months ago or fifty or a hundred miles away. It was magic.
You could also let other people hear the record if you had the ability to transmit signals. There were machines that could modulate electromagnetic waves, the kind that vibrate lower than you can see with your eyes, the kind that maybe people on Mars can see, but not us, not yet. You would play the record on an electrical-type machine that would make the air move in a certain way, and it would spit the shaped air out in a way that other people could listen to it, if they had machines that could taste the spit right. People that played records for other people were called disc jockeys, or DJs. Dewey Phillips was a DJ. He spit music into the night. This was also magic.
That summer night in 1954 the DJ spit a song sung by a nineteen year old. The teenager didn’t write the song. He was from somewhere nobody cared about. He wore shirts that were dyed bright colors and had lace cuffs and liked to put a cosmetic device on his eyelashes called mascara. In another city named the same as the city the teenager lived in, people would mix a powdered copper rock with honey and smear it around their eyes to ward off evil and protect their souls. Maybe the teenager did it for the same reason. This, too, is a type of magic.
People in Memphis who had air-spit machines loved the song the teenager sang. The DJ ended up spitting it fourteen times into the smoldering night. People will go just crazy for a song that they like. It makes them feel good and they want more of it. There is a juice in human bodies called serotonin. It is like a radio that only spits out your favorite songs. Music can induce feelings of euphoria, possibly through triggering higher discharges of serotonin. This is most certainly magic.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, scientists spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get human bodies to make more spit like this, or not to get rid of it as fast if their bodies could actually made it in the first place. The scientists tried to determine how to replicate the spit in the same way that records could play back a song. This was a holy mission in search of the rarest of magics.
The concern some expressed at the time is that there is never enough of this spit. There was only the first time that Dewey Phillips played the record by the teenager; and certainly by the fourteenth time it felt differently. There was only the one time where you kissed your first kiss ever in the back of your best friend’s dad’s Buick. There was only the one time you stood at the wall of the teenager’s house and pressed your hand onto the sharp-edged rock. There was only the one time you held hands in the back of a cab on a January night when it felt like nineteen degrees outside. There was only the one time when you pressed your face to the cold brick of the Hotel Chisca, ruined and empty. There was only the one time when you buried your face in your hands on the banks of the Mississippi River. Not all records can be played twice.
That’s all right. That is the magic of life.
Jackson, Mississippi // Impossible Project Film for Polaroid 600 // November 2013
This is a Polaroid from HALF HOURS ON EARTH, a photography exhibition hosted by Light + Glass Studio. There will be two dozen of my Polaroids on display and for sale, with work spanning 2007-2014. The gallery is also showing work by Ashley Gates and Roy Adkins.
Half Hours on Earth
February 20, 2014, 7:00 p.m.
Light + Glass Studio
523 Commerce Street
Jackson, Mississippi 39201
Let me tell you a story.
It’s not the one about when you said my hair was ridiculously long and I said fine, cut it, and you called my bluff. I ended up on my knees leaning over the tub, giggling so hard I lost my breath, balancing a half-full aviation in my right hand while you jammed the clippers against my neck. You kept yelling THAR SHE BLOWS in like a Popeye voice, and hair kept getting in my cocktail, but of course I drank it anyway. We woke up with hair all over the pillows and I looked like I’d gotten in a fight with a bobcat.
It’s not the one where we met your childhood sweetheart on the side of the road outside Alligator. He’d texted and said he was back home, which meant he was sober, or at least off coke for a little while, and that he had a present for you, did we want to meet him, he was on his way down to deer camp. I wasn’t jealous because I always loved all your old boyfriends, I’d even been a little fond of your husband. I remember he bought me a shot when I saw him at W.C. Don’s one night after he finished that long slide from the bedroom to the couch to his buddy’s couch and back up Highway 61.
So when we made the drive down I didn’t mind and he was like all the rest, puffy in the face and carrying too much belly for somebody barely thirty but with a kind smile and lines around his eyes, just like me. We sat and talked about Ole Miss and how they were really going to suck this year, maybe even worse than last year, and after a little while he pulled the tarp back in the back of his Dodge and there was a case of Maker’s Mark, gleaming in the sun. There were two bottles gone—he said he took one, just in case he ever needed a little help, and he said the other one had gotten busted up when he got it from his buddy.
The case was made out of strips of thin white pine and the bourbon from the busted bottle had gotten all soaked up into the raw wood. We slid it into the back of the Tahoe and swear to God I thought we were gonna pass out from the fumes, until you said the only way to fight fire was with fire, and a few shots of Maker’s later we finally made it back to the house. You said you were going out with the girls and I said fine but there was no way I could hack it, and you kicked at me laying there on the bed, telling me to take off my shoes, and I threw them at you, trying to quote something Willie Morris said once about Mississippi women, but you were already gone, and I couldn’t remember it right anyway.
It wasn’t about the time we were at your momma’s house that Thanksgiving and I had the flu so bad I was shaking and you kept a cold compress on my head and read all the obituaries in the Commercial-Appeal to me in a funny voice, and made me a hot toddy, the smell of lemon sharp in my nose. Maybe it should be, maybe it should be. That might have been the sweetest you ever were to me, rubbing my hands down to the fingertips because you knew it made me sleepy, murmuring in my ear. It might have been the sweetest anyone has ever been to me.
It could have been the one about the wedding we went to that was somewhere outside of someplace, maybe Leland. I never got all the dang names and places straight. I mean I can get up and down the highways but I was always getting startled by beautiful names like Falcon and Darling and telling you we were going to move up there, buy a plantation in Minter City, we’d live off the credit cards until they were all cut off. Because we were going to a wedding we were in a fight, I had already gotten too drunk and you were fake mad that I was, and then I guess you talked yourself into getting real mad, and lit into me about how slow I was going. I told you we could pull the car over right then and live out of it, just shut it down right now, stake out a homestead, use the wheels as sinks and pull the backseat out for a couch. You finally smiled and rubbed your nose and sniffed and stared out the window. You reached over and poked me in the leg, patted my thigh until I placed my hand on yours. You said you’d rather die than live in Leflore County, mashed the button that slid back the sunroof, turned up the stereo, and croaked out “I kept fallin’ like a Rolling Stones song,” and squeezed my hand so tight it tingled.
It definitely wasn’t the time when we were headed to the condo in Florida and stopped in Mobile to get dinner, and I told you not to get the crab because it looked weird and gray, and you flipped me off and got the crab, and you threw up all night long so bad you couldn’t even sip down Gatorade, and we ended up staying the night in a Holiday Inn. In the morning you were still so mad at me for lording it over about you about the crab that you slapped the keys out of my hand and kicked at me like you some kind of feral child raised up by wolves, and got in the driver’s seat. When I told you we were going the wrong way you told me to shut up for once in my life, for Christ’s sake, and we headed right back up 98.
Let me tell you a story, I said.
I’d been to Jackson before but never lingered; it always had the impression of being closed down, like rolling into the drive-thru of a McDonald’s at ten thirty and seeing the slow nod of the man at the fryer, drawing his finger across this throat like a knife.
I was twenty-four and traveled from Starkville down Highway 25 for a job interview. My roommate drove us—he’d gotten me the interview and knew the fellow who was doing the hiring for the Attorney General. It wasn’t the first interview ever had but it was the first where I wore a suit. It was utility wear—black, pinstripe, wearable to both weddings and funerals. I wore the same red tie speckled with yellow that I’d worn to my sister’s wedding, picked out and slid around my neck by a Catholic girl from Ohio.
Most of the other jobs I’d ever had involved me using my arms, my shoulders, my legs to get by. This one needed me to sit in a chair in a converted hotel and type. All the man did was shake my hand and tell me I was hired. It was anti-climatic, but in a good way.
I hopped in a turquoise Saturn with my roommate, who was also my best friend, so he could drive me around town. I didn’t know anybody there. It was early Spring, but already warm; the Legislature was in town, and so we went to this real sixties style hotel where everybody stayed because it was across the street from the Capital. The sign our front looked like they got it right off the Vegas strip, an outtake from Ocean’s 11: a floating golden triangle split with a chrome boomerang and Mondrian rectangles. Some nights in college we’d sit around and listen to Martin Denny and sip Aviators and this place looked like how that sounded and tasted.
It was open on the inside, as best I recall, with the rooms all opening out onto a courtyard. We were going to see a friend of my pal’s who was a Legislator from the Coast. His name was all alliteration, with a French twist on the end, something-or-other ending in an “eaux.” As we tread up the stairs to the second level you could hear tvs and radios echoing out of the rooms. Folks had their doors open and were just walking from room to room visiting and talking.
We made it up to the Coast man’s room and I was surprised to see that he didn’t seem much older than me. In fact, he looked a little bit younger, but he had on an old man’s eyeglasses, square, real out of date seeming, with wire rims and a bifocal part at the bottom. It had a dizzying effect of him seeming like a character out of play who looked the part from the audience, but up close you guessed was just somebody’s cousin who had a flair for Arthur Miller who they needed to fill out a scene.
He was wearing suitpants, like we all were, but had taken off his shirt and carefully laid it over the back of a chair, the jacket hanging in the closet. He was in what folks would call his shirt sleeves, what I call just wearing an old undershirt. There was an open suitcase on the bed, filled with back-pocked-sized bottles of Jack Daniel’s and Taaka vodka. He offered us a pull and we graciously accepted. We set and talked about the Governor and what all was going on with the Democrats in the House. He made us promise that when we moved to Jackson we would get real active in the Party and sign up to be officers in the Young Democrats because they needed new blood. We promised about as hard as we could because that was why we had gone to school in the first place, although of course we both ended up going to law school because all that other is real hard work.
We didn’t stay long, and to be honest I don’t remember a whole lot of it. I was tired from the drive down and fuzzy with whiskey and pride and some real fear about moving to a new place and whether I’d be able to make it. The sun was down and it was cooling off as our feet crunched on gravel out to the car. We weren’t talking about anything at all when the guns started going off.
I didn’t know what to do—the only shots I’d ever heard were out in the woods, with men I knew shooting them, or aimed at beer bottles out at the old baseball park where my dad played softball for Sandusky Baptist. I went face down in my only suit into a mud puddle, hugging the ground, gravel on the side of my cheek.
An old man in a blue jacket came running out of the lobby. He was wearing what looked like a badge. A car screeched around the corner just like it was carrying a group of toughs from a Magnum, P.I. episode. It was almost completely dark outside the 1960s glow of the hotel. He helped me and my buddy to our feet. “Dang kids,” he mumbled. “Always going around shooting off they guns, trying to scare folks.”
I moved to Jackson a month later.
I don’t remember if it was one of the cold parades, and if it was, we’d burned it out by 10 a.m. through a true dedication to the spirit of Mardi Gras. I look over and your Krewe of Southdowns cup is empty, only a trace of orange swirling around the bottom. I’m frankly dizzy, a lovely cotton candy headache pushing up against my fake Vegas Elvis sunglasses. A float scrapes by embedded on the back of a bright purple 18-wheeler, thumping a song that sounds like a robot rapping. It’s the kind of music I normally say that I hate but right now it’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. I can feel the beats tremble in my stomach.
I look over and you’re waving your hands in the air, Saints jersey already half covered with pink and green beads. “I’M’A BUY YOU A DRANK” scream the fifty people jammed around us, I’m startled and laughing, I love Spanish Town but have never been in a crowd of poets and painters starting to grind on each other before. I almost drop the antique camera I’m hauling around when the hail of beads comes—and I snag the best I’ve ever gotten, a rope of footballs with a Bud Light badge. The robot song dopplers down the street. The football beads clatter onto the golden dice and neon plastic fruit already roped around my neck. A trickle of sweat runs down my brow.
I look up at the sky and it’s so pretty, off to my right is a girl dressed in hot pink 80s prom dress mashing up on a boy with a brown suit coat straight out of a 70s detective show, I cock the shutter on the Land Camera, squint through the lens, the sun comes out and I hear cheers start up behind me as “Don’t Start Believing” screams down the street, and I like the way there’s all those busy wires and equipment strung overhead, hundreds of pounds of copper and steel and oil nailed to great shafts of wood and swaying gently as the beads begin to scatter and fly.
3734 E.P. Blvd., Memphis, Tennessee 38116, Polaroid 600, film expired July 2007, Photo taken November 2013.
YOU ARE TWENTY-ONE YEARS OLD and on Beale Street. Just like every other 21 year old in the history of Memphis who is 21 and on Beale Street you have been drinking whiskey and dancing to the blues and sweating even though it’s wintertime. There was an hour of R.L. Burnside and then J.S.B.X. screaming about how now they got worry. Between the two bands there is a century of blues. You’re pretty sure they ain’t got the heat turned on in the burned out old theatre you’re dancing in.
Christina from Boss Hogg is there amidst the busted Budweiser bottles and she is impossibly tall and wearing a floor length white mink coat. She is the most beautiful woman you have ever seen. There might as well be a forcefield around her, a ten foot invisble cordon. After the show you shake Judah Bauer’s hand and it is a massive paw, your hand like a little kid’s in the middle of this great rhythmic device of calcium and cartilage.
You are with your two best friends. One is a drummer and the other a singer and sometimes you will make fliers from cut-up bits from 1960s DC romance comics and then pull on a pair of your girlfriend’s fake leather pants and put on a lot of makeup and plug in a knockoff Les Paul and drink Colt 45 and make a lot of noise. You are 21 years old and drunk on whiskey and you want to be in a band so bad, the only thing you really believe in is holy blues, sacred rock and roll. It is the only thing anyone on Beale Street at midnight truly believes in.
Sweat freezing on tender young necks, y’all load up in the van, drive ten minutes South, wind down McLemore and Mississippi and spit out onto South Bellevue—that’s what they still called it when you were little, even though they’d changed the name a long time ago—and there you are, he’s long gone, long gone, Johnny Bye-Bye. But when you put your hands on the rocks and blue suede Converse scrape against mortar you can just believe, cutting your hand on the stone, you can just believe that if you make it to the top of the fence he’ll be standing there, and in the dark you can see the long limbs of the Weeping Willow sway, if you just make it to the top everything’s gonna be okay.
I am standing in front of the stone walls of Graceland. They’re covered with names from all over the world. I wasn’t going to take a picture but there’s a Weeping Willow. I love Weeping Willows; I don’t even know if there’s one in Jackson. When I was little I liked to run through them, and feel the gentle fronds brush against my face. I thought of them as a character in a book: capital W, capital W. They weren’t necessarily sad, just ancient, majestic, filled with knowledge: like Aslan. Weeping Willow. Even the name is beautiful, like something I would name a plantation or a mansion if I ever made the money, bought up an old place outside of Minter City. I mash the big red button, but there’s just a dry click, and no whirr.
I am sitting in the stands of Bryant-Denny. I’m laughing because my Pop won’t use the crimson and white shakers they put on all the seats. Men of a certain age won’t; it’s unspoken but well understood. I have decided that I will give in a jump around to all the dumb songs that I was sick of even back in 1992. When “Thunderstruck” comes on, Pop starts to cheer, and I say “don’t you feel bad for grounding me from this concert now?!” He throws his head back and laughs, and the tall guy next to me who looks like Vince Vaughn starts cracking up, he can’t help it. He really did ground me, but Amy Leath brought me a fake dollar bill with Angus’ face on it, one of thousands they dropped from the ceiling during “Money Talks.” I’m just as happy 20 years later with being able to say I got grounded from seeing AC/DC as to remember the show. I wish I knew where that Angus dollar was.
The Vince guy is wearing one of the rented radio earphones, which lets me know that he is both hardcore and also probably a guy I like. He wants to hear what Eli Gold is saying about the game. He is not afraid to use the shaker. He also flips it around and uses it to stir bourbon into his co-cola. He’s got the same flask I have: heavy pewter, with his initials stamped into it. Every groomsman in America probably has one. I jacked the top of mine up at a Drivin’N’Cryin’ concert one time, couldn’t get it open. Mine has sat empty and cold for the better part of four years now. Maybe I should give it to somebody who could use it, but it feels like giving somebody an obligation, or a bomb.
There is an older couple in front of us. The man stands, gingerly; he’s wearing a khaki coat. We’re in section N, high up, just under the overhang, so the driving but gentle rain rarely reaches us. The wife doesn’t stand so well. She has the close cut white-gray crewcut of a cancer survivor. Maybe she just likes it short. It looks good; like an Emmylou Harris color, silvery shot through with dark gray. After Bama scores in the 4th on another run by T.J., the man leans in, and they kiss very softly, very sweetly.
The picture from Graceland didn’t turn out, but I kept it just the same. I’m going to smear an inky red thumbprint on the blank lemon-colored front, scrawl an apology on it, and mail it across the ocean. I don’t even know where yet. A bottle in the ocean with the same message on bloody parchment, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, it was all my fault.