story: La Foto

La Foto

I'd bought some gum over near the Duomo, at one of the little tabacchi brimming with smoke, but by the time I reached Piazza SS.Annunziata, it had already lost its flavor and I was just chewing it to keep my mouth occupied. I swear I have some kind of oral fixation. I didn't want to fork over money for more pastries or gelato, though, so gum it was. The sun was already beginning to go down behind where I was sitting, facing the candlestick columns of the orphanage hospital thing across the way. Luckily for me, Lonely Planet Florence had been correct for a change. The steps on the other side of the piazza were peppered with junkies and street types, casually slinking underneath the baby-dotted overhang and communicating with silent but Italian gestures.

I hoped that I was blending in, that my dark coat and shoes would let me dissolve into the shadow of the columns on my side of the piazza. The sun wasn't going away fast enough. At the same time, though, i was worried about having enough light for a decent exposure. Not used to snapping a lot of shots at night—not sure how well the chemfilter would compensate in place of ordinary flashbulbs. Still, it was a hell of a lot bettr than using an actual camera there. The junkies would've kicked my ass in a heartbeat.

Waited for a little while, just blending, lingering as best as I could. They should teach that in j-school: Advanced Lurking, Intro to Patience. The sun crept away a bit further. I sat down on the steps and could feel the dirt grains beneath my jeans.

That's when I spotted someone with potential. He was shuffling across the piazza, stopping to lean against the railing beside one of the fountains. Reddish leather jacket that'd been kicked around the block a few times. A couple days' worth of beard setting off caved-in eyes and pocked skin to match the jacket. I couldn't tell where he was heading— towards Via dei Servi's motorino-hopping kids at the corner, over to the orphanage steps to join the clusters of huddled drifters, who knows— but he was pausing in his travels to slump over the railing like a deflating sex doll. Maybe he was going to be sick. Perfect. It was a great shot.

I had the TruVue remote clippped to my keychain for convenience, so I quickly fingered inside my pocket for it, clicking it against some spare Euro coins. The viewfinder square appeared in my line of sight, boxing in the drunk as well as the grimacing fountain statues. I squinted a bit and forced the zoom in, hoping that the guy wouldn't catch me gawking at him while I lined up the photo. A pretty straightforward angle, nothing too complicated or fancy, but I figured it would be a good addition to the stock of photos I'd been compiling in Florence - a still-growing stack of reality shots, with this one as a nice epilogue to the bunch of daytime shots from that afternoon. I thought up the light filter just a tad to get the contrast on the tight Italian jeans, stretched taut enough so that you could see the outline of some change in his pocket. Then I went for it. The guy stood there still in his ragdoll way while I put up with the usual quick-migraine tingle of the photo transferring to wetstorage. That made about half of the wetbank full, piling in with the other shots from earlier in the day.

"Hey Nick!" That's when I heard the girl howling from across the piazza. I looked over and caught her square in the viewfinder - typical American spring breaker, desperately trying to feign Euro sophistication with bone-tight leather pants and sliver-heeled boots. Totally unable to cover her roots, though. The leopard and its spots, I'm telling you. Probably on her way to one of the Irish pubs or some disco.

But then I saw my guy heaving himself up from the propping railing and flailing one arm in jerks in the girl's direction. "Yeah, Angela!" in some kind of Chicago twang. When he found his axis again, he dragged himself toward her and flung the jerking arm around her bare stick shoulder. I could hear them jabbering in drunken English as they made their way out of my viewfinder box and away from my line of vision. The stone buildings echoed the sounds back like an embarrassed afterword.

Shit. I'd completely thought he was Italian, too. So much for that shot of real Florence. I left the viewfinder going for a while longer, though, while I jotted a memo in my notebook to erase that shot from the wetstorage files before transferring them to long term.

You get accustomed to change, you really do, no matter how weird or big it is. I had an uncle who lost both legs in a motorcycle accident. Just a few days after the doctors had patched him up, there he was, swinging that torso around in his wheelchair like he'd been born to it. I was there at the accident—I remember two gushing stumps like cross-sectioned salami, the kind with all the white jelly bits and spices. I'd wanted to take a picture, but I was only ten and the 'rents wouldn't let me. Even though he wasn't her brother, Mom still flipped out and screeched at the thought of me snapping pix of Uncle Maury like that.

Fortunately, in my case, change did not involve any severed limbs. Change was the Science of Tomorrow, the latest expansions of human potential thanks to modern technology and things like that. When I was a kid it was the novelty of Atari 2600 and playing Pole Position in your living room; then later it was the Internet and chatting with homeroom friends via buddy lists; and after electrons and wires, it was neurochemistry and wetware for everyone's tech jollies and consumer pleasures. Everyone who could afford it, anyway. Those folks could buy any number of crazy wetware and stimurecord packages propping up the new interactive industry. The one that grabbed me, though, was the TruVue suite of neurocording photography enablers. And me being the classic example of Youngest Child Syndrome, I stuck it on the wish list and got it. Eh, the other two siblings are the boring career successes, and the 'rents are good for the money. No crime in indulging the one creative offspring.

I keep meaning to bone up on the technical side and read the material that explains how it works—how the glandjets and the nano bits interact with the retinal nerve and the brain lobes to make my two eyes act like a functioning camera—but I figure it's one of those things you just leave to the professionals and reap the rewards, like indoor plumbing or microbrewed beer. I'd rather spend my time actually using the equipment, putting the photo suite to work compiling my portfolio. Not every journalism student gets an opportunity like this. It's got "Pulitzer" written all over it with Sharpie marker.

Another dismal Thursday morning outdoors, next to the wedding-cake-cum-breadstick Campanile and the first herds of tourists. Is Florence ever sunny for at least a few hours? I seemed to keep catching the bad weather. The Duomo steps hadn't flooded with people yet, so I enjoyed the relative peace for a moment. I'd already lined up a couple of potential shots but hadn't actually snapped anything yet. The back of my ear still itched a bit from where I'd shoved in the download plug that morning, freeing up space in the wetbank for more pix.

Across the road a bit, snuggling away out of the cloudcover, there was a crusty beggar woman hunched on the step in front of the self-service café. She had a red handkerchief knotted over some greasy bangs, and on a torn cardboard piece she'd written "Ho Fame" in letters so big I could see them all the way from where I was standing, even without the zoom on. Just to see how it would look, I thought up the zoom a bit and caught a glimpse of the deep highways of wrinkles over her eyebrows, trickling down into jowls at her chin. Dirty weathered skin, Mediterranean or Rom or something along those lines. Dingy cardigan the color of those tan M&M's they had before they introduced the blue ones. She had this air of age before her time, and as she held up the sign she just stared out beyond the tourists and passers-by at some distant speck.

That was a keeper. I could see her eyes just crying out from a black-and-white glossy page, telling stories beyond the usual Florentine shit of Medici-this and Guelfi-that. For the effect I thought over to the black-and-white filter, hoping that I could get a better contrast on those wrinkle roads.

But then when I tried to center the shot, I kept getting part of the Duomo façade in the photo. No matter how hard I tried to crop it, there was always a bit of marble confection mucking up the composition. Dammit. I tried stepping away from the Campanile and further into the square, past the poster vendors and a clutch of sightseers. Every time, though, I swear, the damned Duomo front was getting in the picture. And I didn't want to edge too far forward for fear of losing the angle I had, so I just kinda stood there for a while with the viewfinder fencing in the beggar woman's head, black strips framing it where I'd last set the crop margins.

It started to rain. As I watched, the beggar woman lit a cigarette from inside the cardigan and started sucking away at it casually. She didn't seem worried about turning off any potential alms-givers; no one was really giving her coin tin much notice as they all scrambled to get out of the rain. I chalked it up to a lost shot and remembered where she was in case I came back to the area later on.

"Tell it like it is; don't be afraid to let your conscience be your guide." Not sure of the title of the song that's from, but it was printed in big faded letters on the inside cover of a photojournalism textbook I had to read back in college. There's two sides to it, though—not just the person telling it like it is, but also the person who wants to hear it like it is. Even back when I was just doing standard box photography and not the chem stuff, I picked up on this. People will put up with postcards and National Geographic photo spreads only for so long before they start wanting to peek behind the pictures, lookig for the real life in the scene. The paupers hiding in the shadows of the soaring cathedrals with their flying buttresses and stained glass windows, the itinerants struggling to make their meagre livings next to the great stone palaces and famous ruins. All the real-life scenes that carry on 364 days of the year, scooted out of the way for that one day when everything is spit-polished for the postcard photographer.

I guess I lucked out in that this was the sort of work that interested me. People wanted to see the evidence of these realities, and I wanted to be paid to show it to them. I wanted to create stacks of glossy books with pages screaming the true faces of the cities dotting the Travel aisle in Barnes and Noble: Paris, London, New York, and all their friends. Me and my little black picture box, bopping around the world, snapping the god's-honest-truth on photo reel, that had been my plan. The advent of wetware just made it that much easier. Unfortunately, work's work and it takes time, and this goal of mine was no exception. Sometimes I managed to sell a few shots to magazines or book publishers in need of stock photos, but mostly I just traveled around compiling material. My best friend was the trust fund that Gramma left before she died; it kept me in food and wetware support and semi-decent hotels. Not hostels, though—I could never get used to that whole hostel thing for some reason. Those places rub me the wrong way.

It was the most perfect shot, really. Not a huge panorama—just a few square feet, to be honest. I had been wandering around trying to find a decent bottle of olive oil to send home ot Mom as a souvenir when I spotted this crumbling patch of stone on the outside of the Medici Chapels, just beyond the steps of San Lorenzo's church. No joke, it was completely poignant and reeked of down-to-earthiness—from the angle I had I could get the patch of stone in the foreground and juxtapose it with the blurred outline of the church in the background, all against more dreary cloudcover.

So I paused by a grate railing off to the side and pretended to be looking over at the church. The cropping was such a chore—a whole gaggle of Asian tourists clustered at the left-hand side of the viewfinder, and I had a bitch of a time blocking out their leader's umbrella. It took a bit of squinting to completely cut out the San Lorenzo market stalls—Jesus, there were so many of them, and their flappy little awnings were ruining the composition—but I finally managed to get a neat black square in my vision framing only the building face and the church. I even had one of TruVue's chemfilters running to blur the church just a bit more than usual, which was giving me a nasty sinus headache but was well worth it.

I steadied myself against the railing, keeping the viewfinder in line. My forehead was throbbing, but I forced my eyes to stay open and quickly thought the shot before I passed out. Just as I stated the wetstorage transfer, though, a fat smudgy pigeon drifted down from the sky and settled into a perch on the railing right in front of my stone square. Goddammit. It was too late—I'd already felt the storage process complete itself. I now had in the wetbank a gorgeous shot of honest dying stone in ironic juxtaposition with the almost mythic unreal image of the church ... all marred by this little fat-assed pigeon. I kicked at the railing, spooking the bird away, and started setting up the shot again.

"I know that it's all mostly religious art stuff, and I'm usually not a big fan of all that, but Jesus, there's just something about this place. I feel so calm. Or inspired. Or both. Or maybe I'm just rambling."

I was with Marian, and like always, she was chattering non-stop without even pausing for breath. She'd just let some of the words go quiet as she drew in air at the same time that she was saying them. I never understood how she could do that. I knew her from years and years back, long before she moved to Italy in pursuit of new frontiers. I had promised to look her up while I was in the area, and even though I'd already been there, she dragged me off to the Uffizi Gallery that morning anyway. Not a whole lot of subject matter there for me, sadly. I mostly set up shots and reset them for practice while Marian went off about the artwork. Neurocord photography was too new for the officials to bar just yet, and in any case I just looked like an ordinary guy gawking at the pretty pictures.

We were sitting in the Botticelli room, enjoying the shady spot in the room's center where they have benches for the visitors. Marian's gaze was still glued to whatever that painting was, not the Venus one but the one just to the right of it. She hadn't changed a bit in all the years since college. Still the same bird-voiced perky-titted little elf in long skirts and leotards, talking about artistic inspiration and the whole spiritual experience of museums. Last I heard she was working on a book about it, but nothing published yet.

"Don't you agree? Or am I off-base here?" Shit. She'd been asking me a question and I hadn't caught it.

"Sorry, Mar. What were you saying?" I put on my best apology grin and watched as her face swiveled into the viewfinder. Just for the heck of it, I cropped out half of her head and watched her disembodied chin talk.

"I said that this place is amazing, I never get enough of coming here, et cetera. Are you even here with me, Jerry? You're so spaced out." As I uncropped her face she leaned over and peered directly into my left eye. I could smell lunch's gnocchi and pesto on her breath. "You're taking pictures, aren't you. I still can't believe you went and had that done. You know it's not regulated in most states, right? I only ever knew one guy who had that stuff and I think it wrecked one of his brain glands."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence." I stuck out my tongue at her and looked away, zooming instead on a fat lumpy woman planted in front of the Primavera painting. She'd been there for at least ten minutes and I swear her leg fat was beginning to settle just like those plastic donut toys you give to toddlers.

"Do what you like. I just wish you'd knock it off and actually look at the paintings. We paid admission for you to get in, for chrissake."

"I can't help it—it's a reflex. I'll give it a shot, but no promises."

"Hmph." That seemed to satisfy her for the moment, at least. She eased herself off the bench and headed out towards the exit, granny boots clicking like mah jong tiles on a table. I followed her out of the sala and pretended to be interested in whatever canvases were on the next wall.

"Have you had a chance to take pictures of the Boboli Gardens yet?" Marian turned and asked me, smiling suddenly. "The grass is really looking green after all the rain this place has been getting lately."

I hadn't been there yet, and I really didn't plan to go there at all. I knew what it was like from guidebooks, and I sincerely doubted that I'd be able to get any usable shots there. Mar wouldn't want to hear that kind of response, though, so I pleaded a better excuse.

"Don't think I have time to, Mar. I have to catch a train out of Florence tomorrow afternoon to head up to Switzerland, and I've already bought the ticket."

"Oh. Oh, okay. Too busy getting glamour shots of the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio, hey? Maybe next time you're in town."

"Um, yeah." The conversation was making me uncomfortable, and I think that Mar picked up on it because she shrugged her shoulders a bit and stopped talking. We wandered in silence back to the main hallway with all the statues in it and leaned against the windows for a little wihle so that Marian could give her feet a rest. The short pause in talking must have helped because Marian went right back into pointing happily at all the artsy things and yapping away about making artwork in meadows and forests. Just to be polite I switched off the viewfinder for a bit, but I ended up snapping it back on for a few minutes when we reached the end of the hallway; I'd spotted this hilarious old guy with liver spots and peach-fuzzy skin folds on his neck, fast asleep on one of the benches, completely ignorant of where he was.

My hotel required check-out by eleven, but my train didn't leave until two, so I trundled my suitcase over to the Santa Maria Novella train station and left it at the luggage deposit before heading off for a quick good-bye walk around Florence. The sun was finally shining, and as I idled along the riverside and past the Ponte Vecchio, I could see the little sunlight gleams in the dishwater Arno as it churned along its way to wherever it goes eventually.

A couple of turns and soon I was passing through one of the ritzy shopping districts, glancing at windows sporting trim suits and glum-faced mannequins. If it was true what they say about the fewer the clothes in the shop, the pricier it is, then these places would have me hocking some kidneys just for a necktie. Some of the windows called out names I recognized—Versace, Gucci, all the standard pocketbook nametags.

In fact, just next to the shiny glass-coated Gucci sign, I could make out a pretty homely guy in a tattered jacket standing like a maypole in the middle of a gang of gypsy children. The usual analyzing half of me kicked in—good contrast between his jacket and the coats of the store window dummies, nice shadows cast under his eyes by the awning, bright drinker's blood vessels in his nose—probably driven to the bottle by the little horde of anklebiters swarming around him. Was he a dad or a Fagin figure? Got me.

It was the Gucci sign that did it for me, though. Splashy symbol of opulent Florence, city of fashion and dressing chic. Was that this guy? No, I didn't think so. Not Mr. Disenfranchised here with all the little Disenfranchisettes, that's for certain. He wouldn't be strutting down the via toting a strappy Gucci shopping bag any time soon.

A quick thumb on the activator remote and I had him framed and ready to go, until an extra little drifter kid joined the swarm carrying to cones of gelato. He handed one to the guy in the jacket and the two of them started tonguing away happily at the cones, dragging their lips over the cream-dripping sweets.

Well, that wasn't working. Gelato didn't fit in the composition at all. But I didn't have time to sit there and wait for the guy to finish. There had to be two scoops on that thing at least and I had a train to catch. I stood there on the opposite side of the street for a while, trying to figure out what to do, when I suddenly remembered that I still had a handful of the cash in my wallet. I had planned on changing it at the station before the train came and took me into crazy no-Euro Switzerland, but here I might be able to put it to use. Who wouldn't accept a couple of bucks to stop eating ice cream for a minute?

I crossed the street and waved to the guy, catching his attention and the little kids', too. Opened the negotiations up with "parla l'inglese?" but no luck there—just blank stares and wobbling heads. Damn. So I tugged my spare box camera from my jacket pocket and waved it around at him and the kids, trying to get across that I wanted to take their picture—the camera itself wasn't going to be the actual picture mechanism, but I didn't want to try explaining neurocording in hand gestures. I pulled out my wallet and flashed the guy a few bills to entice him but pointed at the ice cream and shook my head. I'm no good at this body-language expression thing, and this guy just wasn't getting it. I kept pantomiming me taking a photo and then pointing at the gelato and mouthing "No," but it wasn't sinking in the guy's thick skull, damn it. He just frowned his watery fish eyes and jabbered a bit in gravelly Italian. Some of the kids chimed in with scratchy laughter.

Then I felt scrabbling fingers at my pocket and turned around to catch a glimpse of one of the brats booking it down the street, towards a crowd of tourists lugging heavy shopping bags. I zoomed in on him and damn if he didn't have my wallet clutched in his greasy little fist! The other kids tried to help their partner in crime by suddenly clinging to my pant legs and making every effort to keep me there, but I kicked them away and scrambled down the sidewalk after the little hellion. The TruVue activator in my pocket slapped against my thigh as I waded through the flock of tourists; as they watched eagerly and laughed a bit, the viewfinder square flickered on and off, catching them in flash frames one after another.

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