Paul Vlachos is a New Yorker who understands The West. And he is a New Yorker who understands New York. Wherever Paul goes, he finds signs of life…
Hollis, Queens, New York City. What might be called “micro-advertising”
I took this in Hollis, Queens, a part of that vast borough that I know little about but which, I have learned, is considered by some to be the birthplace of Hip Hop. Try telling that to people in the Bronx. Anyway, I’m sure there is a lot to recommend Hollis and to secure its place in history but, in this case, I was there to morally support a friend who was going to driving school. He’s in his mid forties and was terrified of driving, so I was also going along to make sure he didn’t chicken out on the journey. We discovered that driving schools get cheaper and cheaper the further you get from Manhattan. You could graph it and it would probably come out to be a perfect curve. I accompanied him on at least two or three trips out there, then I would leave him to learn the fine motor arts while I’d walk among the wig stores and discount marts of Hollis. I was walking on the main drag out there one day and heard a relentless carnival barker on tape being broadcast on the street through a crappy little speaker. He had a West Indies accent and kept reciting goods – all different goods – with the droning and hypnotic refrain “Just two dollars in the back.” I then found this little sign pasted at the entrance to an alley. No, I’m sad to report that I did not go “in the back,” but I kind of wish I had.
Alamogordo, New Mexico – 2012
The side of this gustatory emporium on mighty US 54 actually reads “Food – NOW OPEN,” but I shot only the “NOW” part and I kind of like that message better. So, sue me. I guess I am guilty of editorializing by my in-camera cropping. I don’t see anything wrong with it. In fact, I have a shot of the complete wall, with the complete message that I like just as much, but in a different kind of way. Perhaps I will post that on the Internet that some day. Some day soon. Since we’re on the subject, I should really get my butt in gear and re-do my website, maybe post some photos that I shot after 2001, the last time I actually updated that site. Maybe if I talk about it here, it will goad me into action. It’s one thing to post stuff on Facebook, despite the uneasy feeling that I am surrendering all rights to my images, whether they say so or not. It’s another thing to host my own site, where I can post photos, verbal meanderings, and any other thing I damn well please. Kind of like the difference between renting and owning. I’d like to get back to Alamogordo, a place I first passed through in the early 90’s, then returned to once before I got a tour of Trinity Site, in the Jornada del Muerto, but that’s another story altogether.
Black Rock Desert playa, Nevada – 2002.
No burners in sight. Nothing against the burners, I just like the place to myself. When I’m coated in playa dust, it means a hot spring is imminent. I’m not a big landscape photographer, but I cannot stop myself from picking up my camera when confronted with that cracked-up dry lakebed. If there is a heaven on earth, if such a thing is possible, I feel as close to it way up on the Black Rock desert playa as I do anywhere else in this world. It’s almost an alternate reality. Forget “almost,” it *is* an alternate reality.
Greenwich Village. Abingdon Square, New York City. 2012
After Hurricane Sandy hit New York and the power went out for those of us in the lower third of Manhattan, I must confess to a brief moment of excitement – with memories of my childhood and the blackouts of my youth popping into my head. There is always something about the promise of chaos, uncertainty, and the interruption of the normal status quo that will quicken my pulse. At the same time, I am older now and I like my comforts and conveniences, so this initial bubble of excitement passed as soon as I had to get up to find a candle, my flashlight, and take anything out of my fridge that I would need in the near future, so as not to have to open it much later on. I won’t bore you here with the grand details of the troubles and small victories, of the physical, mental and spiritual transformation that occurred in me over the next 5 days, and I do not mean to belittle the real tragedy that occurred to many people and which many people are still living with. I will not do that here. Perhaps somewhere else, perhaps even in these hallowed pages, but not here. I will say this, though: I took some photos, many photos, but not many turned out well. During the day, the main characteristic of my subjects was dreariness. At night, I was documenting existing light. Such is the case with this one, a bus idling in Abingdon Square just a day or two after the lights went out.
The back of “Paul’s New Mexican Take-Out” restaurant. Carrizozo, NM – 2012.
Paul’s was closed at the time – Meg and I had awoken early at the Valley of Fires campground and were on the way to somewhere down the road when I passed this place, liked the sign, and shot these chairs, which I choose to believe are the most sacred spot in the world to at least one person, and probably to the person whom that one person regularly converses with, as well. I like to think that somebody who works or eats at Paul’s looks forward to sitting in one of these chairs every other night, maybe lighting up a cigarette and staring way past that dumpster, into the open desert beyond, and thinking big, empty thoughts. Maybe thinking nothing at all, but enjoying a very pleasant time doing so. We were just passing through, on our way, unbeknownst to us at the time, to a great breakfast, ten minutes later, at a diner next door to the mini-mart in Carrizozo. I ended up buying a jar of the local hot sauce and carting that jar back to New York City. Meg went into the mini mart to use the bathroom while wearing her pajama bottoms and elegantly lit up a cigarette as she got back into the van, with me urging her to not linger with it lest she blow us both up as I finished pumping the gasoline.
Lower Manhattan – 2012
This was taken down on Church Street, in Lower Manhattan, essentially Chinatown, but bordering on Tribeca, a modern name coined by real estate developers. I have always been partial to this style of fire hydrant – there are many different styles in New York City if you choose to look at them. I think of this style as the archetypical fireplug, similar to the ones in Yonkers when I grew up. Does what we take in as children, what was burned on our brains in those early years, become the standard for all that follows? Anyway, I was waiting for a doctor’s appointment, killing a few minutes drinking coffee, standing around with an ancient Nikon prime lens on my new digital camera, when this fire hydrant caught my eye and made me meditate on what it had seen over the years. Plenty, I would venture.
Gerlach, Nevada – 2009.
I should have bought that patch of desert outside of Gerlach back in 2007, when my friend and I actually checked it out. Pretty cheap at the time and I had the money at the time. Still, I did not. Now, what’s happened to Gerlach and land prices up there is akin to what’s happened to Bushwick, Brooklyn. Difficult to say that Gerlach could ever become gentrified, but it’s also fairly accurate to state, I believe, that a place like Joe’s Gerlach Club will not be opening again soon in that fair town.
Bathroom wall at Kate’s Joint, on the Lower East Side, NYC – 2004.
The decline had long set in at that particular eatery but, oh Lord, do I have memories. Some of them are not even fit for public consumption, although I did nothing wrong or salacious at Kate’s. I just happened to raise my head during any given dinner and witness sordid events. They got less frequent the longer Kate’s was in business. Her original idea – a vegan greasy spoon – seemed to fade, and Kate’s devolved into a shabby bar. I went there the night of 9/11, a silent bike ride across town, across a Manhattan with no cars running that night. I was the only customer and I knew the only waiter that night – Ben, from New Zealand. We were both pretty dazed, as was everybody else in the city. I marveled to him that they were still open, then ordered my usual meal – I was going to Kate’s a lot at that point in my life. Ben remarked that he did not know why he was working. Everybody I knew was questioning what the hell they were doing with their lives that week, that month. Anyway, he was wondering why he was waiting tables when nobody was coming in. I ate my dinner and left. Anyway, I had been photographing the bathroom walls in there for a few years by that point, especially two holes in the wall where the hand soap dispenser had been and which people had been using as two eyes in their ever-changing graffiti of a facial caricature. I need to sort through my photos and do a time-lapse study at some point of that changing bathroom wall face graffito. It’s low on my list of priorities at the moment, though. This shot was not of that section of wall, but it clearly evoked something powerful enough in me to make me pull out my camera and shoot it. I suppose it’s from the heart, that’s probably it, this sentiment.
1998 in the Mojave Desert, California.
I was driving around that day in my old Jeep Wagoneer, drawn, as many before me have been and many after will be, by the desert, by the romance of old Route 66, and by that feeling of promise and unpredictability that the Mojave seems to engender. This trailer was just one of the things I saw. I don’t remember thinking too much of it at the time but, as is the case with certain photos, the more I look at it, the more I like it and the more I appreciate it. I try to recall whether I shot it because I liked the old trailer – that’s my best guess – or whether I took the photo due to the whole composition. If I claimed the latter, I’d probably be guilty of taking too much credit. Then again, if I say it was a happy accident, I might be selling myself short. Either way you slice it, I just love that tree growing behind the trailer. I love that little yellow car in front of it. I love those hills behind it. The only thing I don’t like is the washed-out sky but, hey, that’s the way it is and that’s why you have to go back again and again and again, whether it’s the desert, the country, the city or someone’s face. You never know what you’ll find, even if you’re looking at the same thing. I’m afraid that I would not find this now. It might take a bit of searching. It’s funny, but I always think and tell people about how things decay so slowly in the desert, but stuff actually does change out there. And, for a place where a sign can exquisitely crumble over the course of 30 years, bit by bit, it’s also a place where you can go and be startled by how different the view suddenly seems to have gotten. Anyway this was film, slow film, not digital. Everything changes.
Portland, OR – 2011.
I was in Portland, waiting around for the guy who installed the Ford transfer case and axles on my van to open his garage. He was going to check and adjust the driveline angle for me. I could have done this on the East Coast, but John is an artist when it comes to mechanical stuff and metal and I happened to be on the west coast, so why not? It still makes sense to me. Anyway, I gravitated, as always, to the downtown part of town, and found myself, as always, near the Portland Outdoor Store, with their amazing old sign, the one with the neon cowboy on the bucking bronco. I parked on a side street and was looking up at the side of the building, admiring the string of faded signs on the second or third floor, when I decided to overcome my laziness, return to the van, get a long lens, and try to shoot some of them. I’m glad I did. Forget about story, context, social relevance, forget about anything that the satanic deconstructionist mob will try to shove down your throat. Forget about whether the sign is even true or not. I just like the colors.
Santa Rosa, New Mexico -2012. Another abandoned truck stop.
I’m not sure why this location hasn’t re-opened. It’s on a nice stretch of real estate, not far off the interstate, on a beautiful rise in the land above the main town. The town can probably support only so many truck stops and there are much newer ones in more convenient locations. More convenient to what? The highway. The fast-on, fast-off philosophy. The endless pursuit of speed. I like the care that went into this sign, even though I find it kind of ugly, aesthetically. Almost makes me wonder if it was cobbled together at two different times, maybe by two different people. Then again, I could easily see it being one person’s vision, but not executed quite the way they pictured it. The guy waving in the truck, the wheels, nothing quite fits together. But, unlike Sophia Loren’s face, famous for mismatched parts that make a beautiful whole, this sign is odd. Then again, I’m not being fair, criticizing a faded broken-down sign that has seen better days. Perhaps, pulling your rig into Santa Rosa on a hot summer night in the early 70’s, that big sign, all lit up with the promise of diesel, food and coffee, friendly, lit-up cowboy trucker waving at you as you rumbled in, maybe it was the most beautiful thing in the world.
Southwestern Utah – 2011
This was a fairly lonely junction. I would not even call it a crossroads. The distinction is clear in my mind, but it may exist only in my mind and nowhere else. Either way you slice it, where these two roads met was lonely. I was about to blow right on through. To my enduring shame, I don’t remember where exactly it was. It may have been on Utah 62. It may have been on Utah 24, a favorite road of mine. I do know that I woke up that day in the Valley of Fires campground, in eastern Nevada, and I ended up near Torrey, Utah, a town I had passed through many times, but someplace I had never stayed in. I did not take the magnificent Utah Route 12 through Escalante and Boulder that day, although I have a few stories about going through those towns years earlier that I may share one day. Nobody can forget those switchbacks and that stretch of badlands highway near Boulder. Anyway, it was a route I may have taken before, but not in daylight. Anyway, I was about to blow by when I noticed this old gas station a few hundred years away. I kind of wish I had stopped and gone inside, but I was in a rush and, abandoned as it was, I didn’t want to trespass. You never know – one man’s ruin is another man’s home.
Vaughn, NM – 2012, Always and Forever.
I never go TO Vaughn, I am always passing THROUGH it. Such is the fate of a crossroads town. It’s in a strategic place, a place where people, especially in times of slower travel, could gamble by building a motel or a restaurant, betting that some percentage of passing travelers would need to stop for the night or for lunch or for gas. Vaughn was never really in danger of getting passed over by the Interstate, as no interstate passed near it. It simply is what it is and it exists where it exists. Still, Vaughn seems to be slowly decaying and not much new seems to replace the old, so it could be that the whole modern world has bypassed it, if not the interstate. Perhaps, one day, I should make Vaughn my destination.
Vaughn, New Mexico – 2012. Old welding and mechanic shop
Another shot from Vaughn, New Mexico. I love buildings that display faded signs and painting, especially if there is overpainting on top of previous signage. Toss in some rust and degenerating cement work, along with some outdated language and the promise of an old story, maybe a story with no living custodians any more, and you’ve got an interesting dot on the map. I would love to find one person in Vaughn, and there may be one or two crusty old desert dwellers, who can remember at least the last person to work in this building, if not its whole history.
Wyoming – 2009. Sideways sun at the end of the day. Always great if can catch it.
My endless fascination with crumbling signs, mixed messages, big sky, plywood and desert scrub all combine so easily in Nevada, Wyoming, Montana and the other western states. Over and over, I look at photos like this and wonder why I remain in New York – city of my birth, my friends, my roots – all of my past. Let me not get too glum and drugstore philosophical here. Let me just close my eyes and try to conjure up a quick whiff of what the wind in this picture tastes like if I lick my lips.
Abandoned drive-in movie theater. Yerington, NV – 2009
Another shot taken on the way to someplace, almost certainly one of those godly Nevada hot springs. Abandoned western drive-ins are almost too easy. How can you NOT look at this without thinking of past romance and joy? Of big empty places? Of lives lived outdoors and hot summer nights spent in the car, watching the latest flicks? How can you NOT dwell pleasantly in the past, living in nostalgia – the true death of the moment? But, maybe a brief romantic escapist memory is not such a shameful thing. Maybe we need it occasionally to nurture the moment. Maybe those who command to always be in the moment are being a bit too harsh. I don’t know. It looks like the sound posts – the poles you would park next to with the small speaker – are gone from this drive in. Maybe somebody bought them when this place closed down. I wonder where they are now? I wonder if that drive-in has closed? Hell, here I go again…
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