Durrell, in his oversized sky blue Hawaiian shirt and green basketball shorts, sat in the middle of the subway car with his handheld video camera fixed firmly against his eye. He had been riding on the same train for over three hours, going back and forth like a human pendulum, all the while filming the people in the car. It was not uncommon for him to lose entire days to a single track, serving as a permanent fixture to a transient population of underground people.
Thanks to the graffiti epidemic of the 1970s and the subsequent Clean Train Movement and Giuliani's Anti-Graffiti Task Force, it was rare to see even the smallest markings on the subway anymore. Even those who were brazen enough to pull it off found their work scrubbed away within a few hours. For Durrell, the impermanence of street art only made it that more special. Imagine if the Mona Lisa had disappeared in a day or if Starry Night had been buffed out before anyone could lay eyes on it. On this morning, however, he had been treated to a car full of bright colors. When he had first boarded, he covered every square inch with his camera, walking up and down the aisle, aiming his lens back and forth over the serpentine patterns of illegible tags and ominous acronyms.
He used a handheld recorder -- an anachronistic Sony with a hand strap and a screen that flipped out on the side (although he rarely used the screen, instead preferring to lose himself in the eye of the camera, which made him feel like he was capturing a moment as opposed to simply watching one) -- and not a more modern device, because the weight of the older video camera was comforting to him in a way -- it reminded him that he was not simply alone while with other people, but that he was separated by and hidden behind the small machine, distinct from his environment while also capturing it for posterity.
Aside from Durrell and a few other peripatetic wanderers with no place to go but a need to move nonetheless, there weren't many people riding the train that morning. He fixed his camera on the other travellers without them noticing. Nothing particularly interesting was happening, but he filmed it all anyways. He turned around in his seat and shot through a small opening in the graffiti as grimy, speed-distorted darkness went zooming by. The train slowed and the walls became increasingly brighter until he was staring out at a fluorescent-lit platform filled with anxious people in monochromatic business attire. They each wore the defensive dead-eyed glare that every New Yorker acquires over time, as if boredom were the strongest deterrent against muggings and other potential metropolis hazards.
When the doors opened and the mass of people swarmed in, Durrell instinctively pushed to the far end of the bench, squishing his body against the metal arm rail. He craned his head to the side to avoid the plump buttocks of a woman in a grey skirt and continued to film. For the most part, no one seemed to mind or even notice him. Either they, as citizens of one of the most crammed cities in the world, were inured to the gaze of others or they simply chose to ignore Durrell, writing him off as just one of the many oddities they were sure to encounter throughout the day. But not everyone was indifferent to Durrell and his camera. The odd person gave him a dirty look, flipped him the middle finger, or moved seats altogether. None of which fazed him. He just kept filming. He kept his camera steady even when a man in a black suit with gel-slick hair waved him off like he was shooing away a fly. When he saw that Durrell wasn't going to give up, he lunged forward and attempted to swat away the camera.
"Get that thing out of my face."
Durrell's expression didn't change as he continued to film. He was so calm that he looked like he could have been shooting a scene with this man in the suit his actor. People started to stare at the two, wondering if perhaps this wasn't some young director filming a guerrilla-style movie right here on their train. But then most remembered that the kid with the camera was already in the car when they got on, and the growing redness in the cheeks of the businessman was too genuine to be mistaken for pretend rage.
"I said turn that thing off," he lunged once again for the camera while holding on to one of the overhead bars. In one swift move, Durrell ducked and got up from his seat, avoiding the other passengers while continuing to film. Most eyes were on them at this point, but no one intervened. Durrell calmly walked backwards, weaving in and out of people with a blind person's intuitive sense of spatial awareness.
"You have no right to film me," the man yelled, pushing people aside in his pursuit of the camera. "This is an invasion of privacy."
Some of the other passengers took out their cellphones and videotaped the scene as it took place. Durrell sensed that he was running out of room, so he slowed down and waited to make his move, knowing that the next stop would be coming up at any moment. Just as he was about to be grabbed, the doors opened and he jumped out onto the platform. He hustled forward to a safe distance and turned around to see his pursuer trapped behind a sea of people who were pressing onto the car. The doors shut and the man in the suit stuck his face against the inside of the graffiti-covered window. He pounded on the glass and yelled something, but Durrell couldn't make it out over the metallic drone of the accelerating train.
The sun was out when he got to street level. It took his eyes a few minutes to adjust to the natural light after having been underground for so long. The sidewalks were busy, so he walked slowly at first, letting his body get accustomed to the sensory overload, but within no time he was zooming through foot traffic, skirting along the edge of the sidewalk and threading the needle between people. With his camera jutting forward, his dark skin, and his bright and baggy clothing flapping behind him in the hot summer air, he resembled some sort of strange insect, weightless and agile and distinct from the crowd.
After walking for a few minutes, taking lefts and rights at random, he finally stopped and lowered the camera for the first time all morning. His right eye, which he'd kept closed in order to look through the viewfinder, was blurry for several seconds before he finally regained focus. He had grown so accustomed to viewing the world through the narrow eye of a lens that looking at it naturally somehow felt unreal. The sun seemed too bright, colors too vibrant, and the individual lines in people's faces too noticeable. After just a few seconds, it became too much for him to handle, so he raised the camera back up to his face, and when he did he was staring straight across the street at a hot dog vendor stationed in front of a small park. All of a sudden he became aware of the hunger pangs in his stomach. Durrell would often get so caught up watching other people that he would completely neglect to consider himself, sometimes going entire days without eating or noticing that his shirt was on backwards or that he was wearing mismatched shoes.
He crossed the street at the intersection, filming the half-stunned-half-uninterested expressions on the drivers' faces, and made his way over to the hot dog stand. As he pointed the camera at the old and melancholic face of the vendor, he pushed his hand deep into his pocket and fished out a wrinkled five-dollar bill. He tilted the camera downward and filmed the entire wordless transaction: handing over the bill, receiving the hot dog, and awkwardly taking his change with the hot dog still in his hand.
The park was so busy that he was forced to share a bench with a mother and her young daughter, who were taking turns picking breadcrumbs out of a brown paper bag and tossing them to pigeons. He put the camera, still running, down by his side on the bench facing away from him and went to work on the hot dog. The little girl noticed the camera and began to make funny faces for it. She stuck out her tongue, scrunched up her face, puffed out her cheeks, pushed in her nose, pulled out her ears, and made herself go cross-eyed. Oblivious to the girl, Durrell finished eating and turned to retrieve the camera, at which point she went back to innocently tossing breadcrumbs to the head-bobbing birds.
He followed the path to the opposite end of the park, where he settled behind a rusty chain-link fence and filmed a basketball game in progress. They were around Durrell's age, and they were odd-numbered, which forced them to take turns sitting out. A chubby white kid in a sweat-soaked t-shirt struggled to guard a fit, shirtless black kid, who eventually took advantage of his defender's fatigue and easily drove to the net to put in a layup. As they passed the ball back outside the perimeter, one of the players pointed toward Durrell.
"Yo. We need another man. You want in?"
Durrell said nothing. He just kept filming the court, even though the game had stalled and the players were looking at him.
"I said do you wanna play?"
When he continued not to respond, they began to look at each other in confusion, collectively growing suspicious of the mental state of this kid in the Hawaiian shirt holding the video camera. As he turned to exit the park, the basketball players bid him farewell with a chorus of insults and whistles, to which he paid no attention.
When asked why he filmed everything, Durrell would often respond with a barely audible grunt or a simple, "Because I like it," but the truth was he did it because he was afraid of forgetting. He was afraid of forgetting everything, from the big things -- like the way his mother looked, and how she changed over time -- to the littlest details -- like the exact positioning of the picture frames in his living room, or the way the apartment building across the courtyard seemed to change color when the low sun hit it in the evening.
His obsession with remembering had started a few years ago, shortly after his father passed away. Durrell was just 12 years old at the time, and within a matter of months he began to notice that his memory of his father was fading. He could still picture him sitting at the kitchen table in his navy blue coveralls drinking his morning coffee, or playing catch with him in the empty lot at the end of the street, but he could no longer remember the details of his face. It was as if the memories had become blurred, and seeing as though his father was never one to pose for photos, there wasn't much for Durrell to pull from in order to unscramble them. Sure there was his parents' wedding album, which he would sometimes stare at for hours at a time, and a few pictures from special occasions, but they were lifeless, two-dimensional representations of the real thing. They didn't capture the aura of his father. Hence the camera, which he bought with his own money at the used electronics shop in Chinatown. There was nothing he could do to bring back into focus the memory of his father, but he was determined not to lose any future memories.
At first his mother encouraged it, thinking it was nothing more than a distracting hobby, until she realized he was taking the camera everywhere he went, including to school, where the teachers put up with it out of pity for his situation. At night, he would even put the camera on top of the TV and film as he and his mother silently watched their favorite sitcoms together. The older kids on the street used to threaten to beat him up if he didn't stop filming, but over time they got used it. Everyone in the neighborhood had gotten used to Durrell and his camera, treating him like a strange but harmless character in a city full of strange characters. In fact, he'd become a sort of legend on his block after he helped exonerate a local smalltime gangbanger named Mookie who had been suspected of robbing an elderly couple outside the nearby bodega. Durrell, who was walking home from a day of aimlessly wandering the city on the night of the mugging, had caught the whole thing on video and turned it into the police, who subsequently released Mookie and arrested the true perpetrator. Since then, he had been treated like an honorary member of Mookie's crew, and everyone knew not to mess with him. He had also been given the nickname Bug Eye, on account of the lens that was always protruding from his face. They would shout out his new name as he walked by.
"What you shootin' today, Bug Eye?"
"Yo, Bug Eye. Can I be in your movie?"
He rarely responded, and all the attention sometimes made him uncomfortable, but deep down he couldn't deny that he enjoyed it.
It was dark by the time Durrell finally made his way home. Not far from his street, he cut through an alley, in the middle of which, parked just outside the halogen glow of a flickering light, was an old Lincoln. As someone who had relied on public transportation his entire life, Durrell had never paid much attention to cars, but this one was too good not to notice. It was bigger than any he'd ever seen, with shiny chrome rims and a red paint job that glistened even in the dimly lit alley. He got close to try and see the interior, pressing the camera up against the back window, but it was too dark to make anything out. Just as he was about to walk away, a hand smacked against the inside of the glass. Startled, Durrell jumped back and fell onto a pile of garbage bags. The door to the car flung open and a fat man with a thin moustache, wearing nothing but a black porkpie hat and silk boxers the same color as the Lincoln, spilled out. The car's interior light came on, revealing a naked woman, with messy blonde hair and colorful stains of makeup, lying on her back on the white leather seats. At the sight of Durrell, she tried to cover her body with a tiny purple dress, but it wasn't much use. Her large, pale breasts poured out to the sides.
"You little perv," the man said, struggling to pull up his pants, which were tangled around his feet. "You get a good look?"
"No," he responded, too scared to get up from the garbage bags. Something squishy and wet was pressing against his back. "I didn't even see you. I swear."
"What is that?" the man pointed at Durrell's hand. "Were you filming us?"
"You creep," the woman yelled from the back seat, still supine with her knees in the air. The dress had slid up toward her stomach and Durrell couldn't help but steal a look. "Get him, Shuggie."
Before he could plead his case, the man lunged forward, tripping over his pants and landing with a loud smack on his stomach, giving Durrell just enough time to get up and make his escape.
"Get back here with that tape." After getting up and falling down again, the Lincoln owner pulled off his pants and threw them aside.
Just a few yards separated them when they turned the corner onto Durrell's street. People sitting on stoops and staring out of windows laughed as they ran by. With the skinny black kid holding the camera over his head and the now bottomless fat man angrily on his tail, they looked like a scene straight out of an old slapstick comedy.
"Gotcha," the man said as he reached out and grabbed the end of Durrell's shirt, but he shook free and crossed to the other side of the road, where a couple of guys from Mookie's crew stood with their backs against the wall of a building.
"Where you running to, Bug Eye?" one of them said as he ran by. When they saw that he was being chased, they jumped off the wall and joined the pursuit.
"Yo, grab the fat man," they yelled out, signaling to the others on the street.
Suddenly a dozen or more were trailing Durrell and the half-naked man, whose expression had quickly turned from one of anger to one of fear. Within seconds someone tackled him to the ground, and they proceeded to kick and stomp him as he yelped in pain.
"Why you messin' with Bug?"
"I… wasn't…" Between kicks he tried to explain himself, but there was no stopping it now.
Before going inside, Durrell filmed from the safety of his apartment building stoop. It seemed like half the neighborhood was now out on the street, either watching and laughing or partaking in the beating of the Lincoln owner, who lay on the ground like a fallen piñata that stubbornly refused to break open.
He entered the apartment as quietly as possibly, trying to sneak past his mother, who was sitting in the living room with her back to the door. But it was no use. Having pissed off his share of people as a result of his obsession with filming, out of necessity, Durrell had developed the ability to escape just about anyone and any situation. Over the years, he'd eluded security guards, angry subway passengers, school bullies, and now a half-naked Lincoln owner named Shuggie. Yet, still, he remained unable to evade his mother.
"What happened to you?" she said without turning around to look at him.
"Nothing. I just ran home."
"There's food in the fridge if you're hungry."
"Thanks. I'm good."
With that brief conversation, which was more or less the extent of their interactions lately, he retreated to his room and locked the door. His mother had tried to get him to open up about his feelings after his father died, but he wasn't interested in talking. He wasn't interested in much of anything until he took up the camera.
At the end of each day, he would pop out the tape, write the date and a brief synopsis of events on it, and store it in one of the big blue containers under his bed. Unless he wanted to be trapped behind walls of blue bins, he knew that eventually he would have to convert to digital. He dreaded the day he would have to make the switch because he liked having tangible reminders of his recordings. Durrell felt that digital video, which took up no physical space and almost seemed not to exist at all, was too abstract, not unlike fading memories.
What no one knew was that he had yet to watch a single second of any of the videos he had made. For now, there was no urgency to watch, just to record.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Graeme Carey. All rights reserved.