Saturday, July 31, 2010
Coffee with a Stranger isn't a project with a lot of rules. In fact, I'd say that most of the time there's a whole lot of improvisation going on, with maybe one exception: I always meet people at a coffee shop. Makes sense, right? It's a public space, a safe environment, and there's an abundance of coffee and snacks right at our fingertips.
Although simple and easy-to-follow, I actually broke my one rule to meet with Stranger #10. After several emails, some hemming and hawing on his part, and a series of miscommunications that led to me being stood up at a Starbucks near Lake Merritt, I actually met Bob, Stranger #10, at his home. And why did I break my one rule for Bob? Let's just say I had a hunch that he would be an interesting guy to meet, and he didn't let me down. What actually hooked me was Bob's website, or more specifically, the unusual opening animation featured on his website. You can check it out here.
Be warned, however! If you're at work with a puritanical boss lurking near your cubicle or if you're reading this with young children bouncing on your knees, you may want to hold off on exploring Bob's website. Trust me.
Bob, I might add, will likely not be happy with my giving you such a warning. He's not one for tiptoeing around sensitive issues or playing it safe. "America is so fucking politically correct that's it's ridiculous!" he told me.
Armed, by request, with a medium, non-fat latte, I pulled up to Bob's house one sunny, Friday morning. He lived in one of Oakland's older and wealthier neighborhoods, on one of those hills where as you climb, the houses get increasingly large and extravagant. In his small front yard he had a surprisingly green lawn, an immaculate rose garden, and some vines that crept along a railing and up a drain spout. His house was stucco and much larger than I originally thought. As I rang the doorbell, I noticed a statue, about knee high, of a man in a trench coat exposing himself to me. I gave him a little wave.
When the door opened, I was greeted not by Bob, but by two large dogs and a woman who I believe was related to Bob in some way. She led me to the back patio through several rooms packed with paintings, statues, photographs, trinkets, and figurines, many of which portrayed sex, breasts, and male genitalia. On a windowsill in the kitchen, I spotted a small statue of two pigs humping. The house was quietly buzzing with activity, as Bob's relatives, dogs, partner, and two Spanish-speaking housekeepers all went about their morning routine.
When I first sat down and started talking with Bob, he seemed suspicious and guarded. I got the impression that maybe he regretted inviting some guy with a tape recorder and a notebook into his home. We sat at a table shaded by an umbrella, surrounded by patio furniture, plants, and more art. Standing next to the patio door was a life-size statue of what I took to be a naked aboriginal man with a bowl cut. Placed in his hands was one of those rainbow colored dusters, which he wielded like a weapon.
"I photograph unusual people. That's what I do," Bob told me, as he took a few drags from a half-smoked bidi cigarette that had been sitting in an ashtray. He wore an inside out black t-shirt, peach colored shorts, and reddish-brown glasses that took me a moment to get used to - one lens was a square, while the other was a circle. His hair was short, dyed purple, and he had a red and blue yin and yang symbol tattooed to a bald spot on his head. I'd guess he was somewhere in his mid-to-late fifties.
"It's easy to photograph stuff like the Gehry Building or a beautiful sunset," Bob explained. "Helen Keller could take a picture of the Gehry Building - wait, do you know who she was?"
"Sure," I replied, somewhat surprised. "I know Helen Keller." These kinds of questions were a common theme throughout my conversation with Bob. He believed that most people under 30 know nothing about culture and history: "This is not a prejudice," he said. "This is what I get from talking to people. Five years prior to their birth it's a blank thing - they have no sense or idea of culture or history beyond color films and video games."
But back to Helen Keller: "Helen Keller could take a picture of the Gehry Building and it would be beautiful because it's not the photograph, it's the building," said Bob. "Anyone could take a picture of a beautiful sunset because it's not the photographer, it's the sunset."
So no buildings or sunsets for Bob. In fact, he mentioned a trip to Africa where he didn't bother taking pictures of "zebras and elephants and all that safari bullshit stuff." Instead Bob takes pictures of "unusual" people. Even if they look somewhat "normal," he prides himself in digging deeper and finding what truly makes someone tick. "I have a degree in psychology," he said, "and I like to do what I call getting between the psychological legs of my subjects. I really like to get in there. I mean, I'm fascinated by people. And that's one of the reasons why I like your [Coffee with a Stranger] idea, because it's a way of communicating and connecting with people in a way which is really human and that's kind of disappearing because of the internet. I like that."
When I asked Bob to expand on what he meant by "unusual" (and by this point, his initial suspicions of me seemed to have waned), he told me that it was the seemingly "normal" people who actually scare him the most. "Although I photograph unusual people, I understand that people who are unusual looking do that out of a need to be unique," he explained. "So when you see people with Mohawks and tattooed faces and all that, those aren't the scary people. People who are scary are the ones who wear beige or plaid. Those are the ones that people say: 'Oh, he was so quiet. I don't know why he killed his entire family.' The people I take pictures of are basically ordinary people who want to be, and who are desperate to be, unique."
Bob is currently working on a book of photographs that explores feelings of pride. "Pride is like a hydra," he told me, after asking me whether or not I'd ever heard of this mythological beast. "It's one of the seven deadly sins, and people are proud for many different reasons. Pride is really a hydra-esque kind of thing and it runs that entire gamut, from arrogance and egotism to sexual pride, religious pride, and family pride."
Bob showed me the prototype to his book about Pride. Entitled A Puff Piece on the Human Condition of Self-Love, Aggrandizement, Narcissism, and Ego Appreciation, the cover featured a full-frontal pose of a man wearing nothing but a shit-eating grin. He was also, ahem, well-endowed. "When I was living in Palm Springs, this guy came over to my house," Bob explained. "He looked like a gay Ricky Ricardo and he had these giant balls. He's what's called a penis pumper - do you know what that is?" I nodded - I've heard of these penis pumpers before. "Anyway, they use this vacuum machine and I was like, 'Wow. That's quite the set of balls you've got there.' And he's like, 'Well, if you let me, I can come back tomorrow and make them even bigger.' I said, 'No, no, no. That's okay.' So I put him in front of these drapes and took his picture. Ever since, this photo has always affected me as an image of total pride and self-love."
Bob had also been working on a book of photos called Net Men. Basically, this book has lots of photos of men Bob had found on Craigslist, gay chat rooms, and other corners of the World Wide Web. "I was always very direct," said Bob. "I would go into chat rooms, find someone interesting, and write: 'I'm working on a project and I would like to photograph you.' Then they would call me and say something like, 'Are you going to be naked, too?' No. 'Can I jack off in front of your camera?' Yeah, whatever you want. But then I say, 'Who are you. Tell me. What are you? Do you have any interesting fetishes?' I mean, I don't really get off on fetishes, but there's a fetish for everything." Bob picked up the barbecue lighter he'd used to light his cigarette. "I mean, there's even some people in the world who I'm sure get an erection when they see this."
"Net Men is the perfect paradigm for a book," continued Bob, setting the lighter back down on the table. "Because regardless of what they do in front of my camera, that's a portrait of them. If they come over to a stranger's house who found them on a sexual dating site and they only want to wear a suit and tie and sit in front of the camera and do nothing, well, that tells me as much about them as somebody who comes over and does something more interesting."
What's more interesting? "I had one guy come over at 4 in the morning," said Bob. "He came in a pickup truck with three giant suitcases filled with a giant bottle of baby oil, ties, dildos, and all kinds of stuff. He put on a show for me for an hour and a half and made a real mess of my bed because of all that fucking baby oil. That's the same thing, though, as the person who will sit there in a suit and a tie, because it tells me who they are."
Bob spoke most fondly, however, of a series of photographs he'd done of a man named Mark. You can check them out here on his website. "Mark's a friend of mine, probably my best friend, who I met in Palm Springs," Bob told me. "He's bi-polar and he has dementia, so he was on disability and was always available. He was a perfect subject because he's also a photo collector and he's really bright. He's a writer and a psycho, which is to say it was a long time before I would let him walk behind me holding an axe."
The photos of Mark are wide ranging. There are straight up portraits, graphic sex scenes, staged suicides, and the occasional tender moment. Perhaps most memorable and somewhat shocking, however, are the photos of Mark's alter ego, Candy-o. Named after a song by The Cars, Bob described Candy-o as "a really bad gender fuck."
"I'd call up Mark at 4 o'clock in the morning and say, 'Get up, come on over, and we'll go out and take photos of you at the Greyhound bus depot,'" recalled Bob. "One time we were driving through Palm Spring's gay neighborhood where all the hotels are and there was this bad paisley couch, and I mean bad, that someone had thrown out. There were two sections of the couch, one on top of the other, and I had Mark crawl between them as Candy-o. It looked like someone had murdered Candy-o and left him on the street inside this paisley couch. It's called The Death of Candy-o."
Although Bob obviously greatly cared for his friend Mark, I was struck by how much control he seemed to have over his subject. "I always tell Mark he's like a potted plant with a brain," said Bob. "He will do anything I come up with." In fact, Bob was very clear that Mark was not only his ideal subject, but that he seeks men with similar personalities for a lot of his work. For instance, when he posts an ad on Craigslist, he writes that he's seeking "submissive exhibitionists."
"I love photographing submissive men," Bob explained. "You never have to say please. They'll hold a pose forever until you tell them to move, and they get off on that." Here in the East Bay, he's also now working with a friend of Mark's who's manic, bi-polar, and a former alcoholic and drug user.
"Do you ever feel bad working with these guys?" I had to ask. "I mean, if they're manic, bi-polar, former drug users, do you ever feel like you're taking advantage of them?"
Bob was emphatic in his reply: "No. Absolutely not. Because I'm not taking advantage of them. I never take advantage of people. I use people. I believe in using people because everybody uses everybody. Nobody gives anything unless they want something in return. Even Mother Teresa wanted something in return. You just don't go out handing out birth control pills in Calcutta for nothing."
Bob went on to say that his work, and the idea that he could be "taking advantage" of his subjects, was all about perception. "It's the gestalt," he asserted, referring to a school of psychology that led to the coining of the phrase "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
"Gestalt is about perception and organization," Bob continued. "Let's say you see a picture of a man and a woman in a bedroom. She's in the process of either putting on or taking off her clothes. Depending on your gestalt, you either see her getting dressed or getting undressed. Or maybe you've seen those pictures that, if you look at them one way, it's a chalice. But if you look at it in another way, it's two profiles. That's all gestalt."
If I'm following Bob's logic correctly, then, if I look at his work and simply see him taking advantage of someone, I'm only perceiving and focusing on a certain part of his work. I'm not stepping back and seeing the whole, or the greater picture behind his work.
"I'm a very selfish person, okay?" Bob said. "But being selfish is not a bad thing. Just like pride isn't a bad thing, but you can take it to the point where you're arrogant. Selfishness is about taking care of yourself. Okay? You can't take care of anyone else unless you take care of yourself."
I must have looked skeptical, because Bob continued, bringing me into his analogy. "You're selfish," he said, pointing at me. "I mean, you were determined to come here and get me to talk. In order to do that, with me or anyone else, you're willing to do whatever needs to be done, hopefully in a kind way or whatever, to meet them. You need to get people to show up and meet you so you can get what you need from them, which is what's in their head. But you could also turn it around and be doing this project for really horrible reasons. You could be writing terrible things about people. You could be a real asshole. So being selfish is about getting what I need for me, so I can give it back to them."
Then, as if to punctuate his entire argument, Bob looked me straight in the eye and said: "So I don't take advantage of people. They don't give me anything that they're not willing to give me."
Although I'm not sure I agree with Bob entirely, I do see some of the logic behind his argument. I am meeting people over a cup of coffee for selfish reasons - I want to write about them! There's a part of me, too, who wants the people I meet to be a little whacky and who hopes they say some outlandish things. That makes things more interesting, right? But at the same time, I try to be very careful, sometimes maybe even too careful, with how I portray people in these pieces of writing. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, especially since they took the time to meet with a total stranger. I don't want to be an asshole. Sometimes I might even omit something particularly odd that someone says, just because I don't want them to read my blog and think, "Holy shit! Did I really say that to him?"
Food for thought, I guess.
As for Bob and I, we parted ways on good terms. We even managed to fulfill both of our selfish, creative needs - I got Bob to talk to me, and he got to take my picture:
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
As I've mentioned before, every now and then the blog will take a break from coffee, caffeine, and strangers for a short intermission. Here today, then, I'd like to introduce you to my recent trip to the Albany Bulb! You can read more about the Albany Bulb here and here, but basically it's a strip of coast along the East Bay known for its past life as a dump, a large itinerant and homeless population, legions of dog walkers, views of San Francisco, and impromptu art installations along its many paths. I also have a feeling the Bulb is a popular place for teenagers to drink a little beer, smoke a little pot, or drop a little acid. So, ladies and gentlemen, why not take a gander with me down the Albany Bulb's yellow brick road? If you'd like, click on the images to enlarge.
Slogans were plentiful at the Albany Bulb. Many of them involved f-bombs and incoherence, but I enjoyed this one, mainly because it's true. Science needs to be done!
Lost somewhere within the Bulb is a concrete structure known as The Castle. I'm pretty sure evil hobbits live inside.
Despite my better judgment and that wary, warning voice in the back of my mind, I stepped inside The Castle. I can't be positive, but I believe this is where nightmares are born.
You know what else was weird? Wherever I walked, I felt like someone was watching me....
I found this little guy trapped in the letter N:
Did I mention it was a windy day?
This guy told me about some treasure in a box along the shore. Even though I found the loot, I left the treasure in the box in case you ever visit the Albany Bulb. Be warned, though: something about this guy's eyes seemed a tad suspicious....
Words to the wise: always carry your resume with you. You never know when opportunity might come a-knocking!
Likely because the Albany Bulb is made of garbage and landfill, this tree was sprouting shoes instead of leaves:
This mammoth burger/sandwich was just lying around for the taking, but I'd just eaten breakfast.
And last but not least, I leave you with who I think should be the Albany Bulb's mascot. I'd call him Bulby, but I'm flexible on the name....
Monday, July 12, 2010
Stranger #9, who I met at Sweet Adeline in Berkeley, is a man of many projects. He even described himself as being somewhat "obsessive compulsive about art projects" to the point where, at times, he's got a little too much going on at once. As a result, I'd like to introduce you to Damian Lanahan-Kalish (he's a-okay with my using his real name), project by project, be they current, defunct, completed, or floating somewhere within the depths of Damian's mind.
There were several things I noticed about Damian's appearance: he was tall, thin, and sporting a moustache-goatee combo. I'd guess he was somewhere in his late 20's or early 30's with a mop of straight, brown hair that swung and parted with the occasional bob and twitch of his head. Like me, he had trouble sitting still - he often swiveled and bounced around in his seat while his hands jumped from one position to the next. His coffee cup, the surface of the table, and the blue plastic wrapper to his New York Times were all thoroughly manhandled throughout our conversation.
But the very first thing I noticed about Damian was actually his t-shirt. It was your run-of-the-mill, plain, baby blue t-shirt, but there was a message in black marker scrawled across its front: "I'm a delicate little flower." Accompanying this message was a simple drawing of a small flower.
I made a mental note of asking Damian to explain this t-shirt to me, but as if reading my mind, he jumped right into an explanation within the first few minutes of our conversation. Apparently for about five straight years, Damian only wore these simple t-shirts, which he designed himself. He had a steady rotation going and all the t-shirts featured, in Damian's words, "self-deprecating or somewhat uncomfortable statements." The picture above features one of Damian's t-shirts and you can see a list of his statements by clicking below.
"I had to stop wearing them all the time," explained Damian when I asked what happened at the five-year mark of his t-shirt project. "I still wear them sometimes, but I got tired of explaining myself. I guess it was sort of a statement on fashion, but as you get older, you just don't want to talk to everyone anymore."
To keep his many projects and ideas in order, Damian also writes a blog. Originally, the purpose of the blog was to write a post every week concerning a single project idea. Damian admitted that sometimes the projects he writes about never get off the ground, but he enjoys thinking up crazy ideas and imagining what they might look like in actuality. Examples include possibly rewriting the play 12 Angry Men with the entire cast dressed in Batman costumes or creating an animated film that revolves around characters that live in and around a decomposing whale carcass at the bottom of the ocean.
The blog's focus, however, may be changing direction. Damian's thinking of turning it into a forum to promote his friends' creative talents and projects, which brings us to the following:
3) Promoter / Event Organizer
Damian is also a big fan of throwing parties and sharing his friends' talents with the world. "I've been sort of a starving promoter for awhile," he said. "Well, I'm not actually starving, but I'm not making any money at it either."
Among other things, Damian has organized big kid proms and science fairs (see the poster to the left and read more info here), featuring art, bands, fashion, and fun. "The science fairs have been amazing," he said, but he's not going to put on any more proms. "Proms are kind of done now that McSweeney's is doing one in New York."
I have to admit that I'm down with the idea of science fairs. I picture mad scientist costumes, bubbly beakers, unsafe explosions, and overflowing volcanoes. Good times!
4) Cultures of Wonder
Speaking of volcanoes, Damian is also working on a pretty ambitious project that involves "huffing volcanic gas that puts you in a prolonged dream state." And, no, this doesn't involve Damian catching a flight to Iceland and climbing to the top of a smoking volcano with his mouth open. Instead, he and some friends are creating a fake natural history exhibit based upon a fictitious "lost tribe" known as the Thulus. The plan is to create an entire history for these people, including stuff about their mythology, religion, and customs. Although there's a Wiki that gets into the finer details, the Thulus are from an island in the North Atlantic (see the picture on the right) and their entire religion/belief system is, according to Damian, "based around the idea that dreams are of equal importance to waking life." The huffing of volcanic gas, then, is their way of getting all high and spiritual.
"Other artists are working on it," explained Damian, "but I came up with the original idea. Eventually I want to build a diorama showing somebody who's in the dream state and there's someone who tends to them, and they're in the volcanic haze, but they're wearing this old timey diving suit around their head, so they can have fresh air and give the person water."
Whoa. Heady stuff, right? Look for this project, entitled Cultures of Wonder, to open at Oakland's LoBot Gallery sometime in the fall.
5) Acting / Sleepwalkers Theatre
When I asked Damian what he did for a living when he wasn't busy promoting, writing blogs, and dreaming up projects, he replied: "I'm really an actor."
An independent movie actually just premiered in which Damian plays a magician. The movie is called The Bigtop and you can check out a clip in the above video. Damian had never been paid so much to act in a movie, despite that he wasn't exactly sure why he was picked for the part. "I don't sing or dance," he told me, which is strange since he described the film as a circus musical. "In fact, I'm tone deaf and I have no sense of rhythm. I've been in acting school and I've been in bands, so I know I can't sing. I spent the whole of acting school not being able to dance, so I'm not being modest." Even the movie's dance instructor agreed with Damian on this one: "He told me we're going to give you the easiest steps and cut away from you a lot."
Damian didn't tell me much about the plot of the movie (although he did sing me the chorus to one of the songs he performed: "You make me wanna go wiiiiillllllddddd, child!"), but he did give me this interesting tidbit - there's a real life tiger in this movie. I know, I know, that maybe doesn't sound THAT exciting, but Damian described the feline as a "bargain basement tiger with tiger handlers that were not that good."
I don't know about you, but when the DVD is released, I'm heading straight for the tiger bloopers!
But Damian's true love and calling is for his theater group: Sleepwalkers Theatre. He and a good friend founded the group a few years ago in San Francisco and they've been quite successful. When I asked Damian to tell me about an unusual role he took on for Sleepwalkers, he mentioned once playing the role of a "competitive eater." The role involved stuffing down actual spaghetti and hot dogs while on-stage.
"We're really trying to do theater for people who don't go to theater," he said. "It's theater with a lower case 't' and we try to keep it accessible for people who normally go see movies."
Their most successful play thus far was Zombie Town, which Damian described as a "documentary theater piece on zombies." Next up is the first play in an ambitious trilogy about the end of the world. When I mentioned that that sounded pretty cool because I love me some post-apocalyptical, Damian responded: "Yeah, everyone does. That's what we're banking on - everyone loves the apocalypse!"
6) Islamic Studies
To add to this brimming, melting pot of projects and ideas, Damian also has a brand spanking new interest. "I just took a class on Islam and I think I want to study Comparative Religion," he said. "So now I'm really into the Islamic world."
He's also hoping to visit Turkey sometime in the future: "I'm really interested in Turkey as a new power in the world." Second on his list of countries to visit? The in-the-same-region, but not-so-Islamic country of Greece. And why Greece? In addition to having a childhood obsession with all things Greek (including Alexander the Great), Damian looks fondly upon his days living in Queens, NY in a predominantly Greek neighborhood. "I ate Greek food every day and it's the best food on earth!" he said. Unfortunately, every time he mentions potentially visiting Greece to his girlfriend, she reminds him: "You know it's really expensive there."
Looks like we know who the voice of reason is in this relationship!
7) Nipple Hunter
During a lull in our conversation, Damian announced to me: "I used to call myself a nipple hunter."
I'll let your imagination run wild for a moment. I hope you come up with something strange and scandalous!
The truth of the matter? Damian used to work for a social networking site called Piczo. Apparently the site caters primarily to a teenage audience in the United Kingdom, and it was Damian's job to search people's pages and profiles for naughty photos, nasty cyber bullying, and other assorted tomfoolery. If Damian found a picture with an exposed nipple, for example, he'd delete the photo or even the offender's entire profile.
And, voila, nipple hunter!
I could go on. We're really only scratching the surface of Damian's many projects and exploits. I could write, for instance, about his food blog, his book of poetry, his rock and roll ambitions, or his brief foray into the world of online music reviews, but I'm hoping I've given you a tantalizing glimpse into Damian's wacky brain. I'm impressed by how much he's got going on - maybe he deserves an honorary PhD in Projects?
To wrap things up, I'll leave you with one last snippet from our conversation. I'm not exactly sure how we stumbled upon Maxim magazine as a topic of conversation, but considering we also spent a significant amount of time talking about Dennis Hopper, I can't say it was surprising:
"Maxim is the most disgusting magazine. It really is amazing," said Damian. "It's so misogynistic. It's all about how to lie to your girlfriend to get her to do things she doesn't want to do in bed. For a while, this is so weird, I was getting Maxim, for no reason, and OUT magazine. So I was convinced people thought I was a super in the closet jock because both magazines were out on my coffee table."