Sunday, December 16, 2007

Upon Finding a Photo in the Kitchen Drawer

This essay concerns a photo I found. However, that part comes five paragraphs later. In fact, I don't even mention the photo in the below paragraph. So if you're especially eager to find out about the photograph, I suggest you skip down. If you feel okay with a bit of exposition, however, keep reading the paragraphs as you come to them. I think it might make the part with the photograph make a bit more sense.

I live in an old house. Through a small bit of research, Aly, Spencer and I have learned that our house once constituted a part of a hotel enjoyed by wealthy and famous of early 20th-century California. (It’s less nice now, I suspect, but it’s livable.) My house even pre-dates the 1925 earthquake that knocked down most of the city and then allowed it to be rebuilt in red-tile-roof Spanish mission-style, making my house the only building I've lived in that's older than my grandmother. Behind me, where I'm typing this now, there's a sliding glass window that looks out onto the stairway. This window shows the age of the house by virtue of the fact that looking at it at an angle reveals a smooth ripple through the glass, which I'm led to believe is characteristic of old, old glass. Thus, there's a chance this glass once looked out onto the outside, rather than the inside, and out onto a very different Santa Barbara.

Given the house's age, its weirdness makes sense, I suppose. By virtue of having stood here for so long and having housed so many people and having been brutally divided into apartments, its current state surely differs greatly from its initial design, hence why some of its features defy logic. For example, the floor in the plant room — which used to be Amber's bedroom and Betsy's office and most recently Spencer's technical bedroom — tilts down perceptibly as it nears the outer wall. Clearly, this room was a porch in an earlier incarnation, and the arc of the floor exists so that rain would run off into the garden and not puddle. The second bedroom — formerly Byron's, formerly mine, and formerly Betsy's before that — lacks a closet, so we suspect it might have once been a dining room. If that's true, the third bedroom — now Aly's, previously Kristen's — might make more sense, as the back wall of its closet is actually a revolving door that would lead into the kitchen if it wasn't being blocked by the refrigerator. What would appear to be Aly bedroom’s cupboards actually open onto the kitchen shelves, where we store the plates and glasses. We suspect Aly's room once served as some kind of butler's room or something, hence the accessibility into the kitchen. Oh, and despite that it only has three bedrooms, the house has fifteen different doors, including the non-functional revolving door, the locked door that leads to the neighbor's balcony and the completely sealed door in the dining room that I didn't even notice until I had already lived here for a year. Clearly, the place has a history, the vast majority of it I'll probably never even know before I move out.

However, on a smaller scale, I'm continually reminded of the history of the past few "generations" of people who've lived here. For example, former tenants get more mail on a daily basis than do the three current tenants. A magazine for Betsy, a check for Kristen, something strangely legal-looking for somebody named Deirdre, credit card application for a different Drew, arty stuff for a girl named Lisa-With-The-Ugly-Last-Name, generally nothing for me. Or there's what happened a few months back, when Spencer and Aly were explaining the house to our friend Graham when he revealed that he had actually dated Lisa-With-The-Ugly-Last-Name and played a small hand in making the house look the way it did. (Bamboo curtain rods for one, and the strange plywood-and-styrofoam structure that blocked off part of the sun room at the top of the stairs and which Aly and I sent crashing down the stars one night in last year a fit of frustration.) And knowing about a connection between Graham and this Lisa girl struck me as so odd because I had never personally met her and only previously knew about her through stories Amber had told and from seeing her name on all the fucking catalogues that she never bothered to unsubscribe from. Yet I know for a fact that I'm still using some of the furniture she bought when she lived here years ago.

Another: One day, Spencer found a secret compartment in the attic. Inside, he found a dusty grocery bag full of papers — photocopies of articles from women's magazines and a partially written thesis paper by someone named Marian who went to Stanford. On a whim, I looked her up on MySpace to find out if she wanted them. Months later, she wrote back, this Marian, saying that she did live in my house for a period and that she no longer needed her old research. She also mentioned that the lead singer of The Ataris lived in the next-door apartment back when she lived here, and that she remembered hearing him fight with his girlfriend and then have loud sex. Everyday. (We, for the record, still hear our neighbors doing similar activities, though the people next-door now aren't rock stars.)

This all seems quite important in light of the fact that I found a photograph in the kitchen drawer a few weeks back. The photo looks like this:


It’s Kristen, whom I know fairly well and who lived here at the house just over a year-and-a-half ago. I don’t know who was standing on the other side of the camera, but I can be sure that that’s Kristen. Despite being able to readily identify the girl, though, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that had I been not me and instead some resident of this house just one generation down the line, I’d have no idea who the girl in the photo was or even when the photo might have been taken. For whatever reason, it seemed notable that I held in my hand an artifact that proved how quickly knowledge about this kind of stuff can be lost. This photo — like the blue leather chairs in the kitchen or the old-fashioned school desk or the lime green wall clock — has a story behind it and a reason it’s in my home. But in a very short amount of time, anyone who might know that story could leave, rending all subsequent tenants to wonder how and when and why a certain thing arrived. Example: Who is the man in the tiny framed photo above the dining room table? I don’t know, and I have no way of guessing whether the photo is retro-faux-wannabe old or genuine, full-on old.

Beyond being just any old photo, qualities of the Kristen photo lend it to being even more mysterious. I don’t know why, but whoever snapped the Kristen photo eventually printed it out in monochrome — and a tinted monochrome at that, which gives the photo a bit of an aged look. Furthermore, the photo had been living in the kind of kitchen drawer that wreaks havoc on smooth finishes — picture frame nails, paper clips, twisty ties, pencils, thumbtacks and countless Allen wrenches, all waiting to make the kind of scratches that that lend a photo the look of something that’s seen better days. Finally, there’s what’s actually in the photo. Beside from just being an image of Kristen, it’s an image of Kristen sitting at a table in an unfamiliar location — a restaurant? some other home? — and dressed in a way that I might describe as anachronistic. All that dangly costume jewelry ornamentation makes her look almost flapperish, but her hair looks pretty contemporary. The photo itself is clear, but not crystal clear, which might make someone think it could be older than it is.

I’m not sure even I’m communicating my point here at all, so let me try some other way: I find something special in both being able to imagine why a certain item might be mysterious and to dream up all the hypothetical stories about why it exists and who made it. I find something alluring in the notion that the true story behind that object can be quickly lost, leading later passersby to do the dreaming up themselves. But perhaps most of all, I find something empowering in the knowledge that I know the real story but very soon others may be at a loss to explain who and what and why is.

There’s something in this photo — maybe it’s Kristen’s expression, maybe it’s the overall time vagueness, maybe it’s a quality I haven’t even processed yet — that I like. Whatever it is, it represents everything: the weirdness of my house and the nature of memory and the stories inanimate objects carry with them (or don’t, as the case may be). There’s something in this photo and I just had to write about it.

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