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10-22-09 Photgraphy project 057

The following is a work of fiction, mostly in the sense that it isn’t a work of fact, journalistic or otherwise.  Any resemblance to real events or persons is entirely coincidental. This is the second of a multi-part narrative (Part One).

4:35

In case you’re wondering, the panhandler was actually slightly entertaining, enough so that even someone disinclined towards generosity might have dug a quarter out of their wallet corner. The train pulls out of 137th street, and rolls onto a viaduct, again bathed in the spring afternoon light. Almost instantly, one of the phones buzzes with a text. There apparently is a “free” tonight, which is great, fantastic, good shit, and also opens up another problem.

Procurement, if you will.

[exposition/background]

Actually, let’s back that up, for two reasons. First of all, someone should have bothered to introduce these kids, and perhaps tell you how many of them they are. Sorry. Anyway, this group of five high schoolers–three more so than the other two–has been through a fair bit together. Not in the sappy, characters-in-a-long-running-family-sitcom-sense, but more in the sense that they’ve had to endure the company of each other for far too long.

The kind-of ringleader of the group was a character named James Cohen, who was, as per the classic, well-worn underachiever mold, clever but distinctly lazy. As it stood on this mid spring day, he was on the wait-list for Columbia University. Not to spoil this story, but they won’t accept him. He knows it, they know it, and his guidance counselor sure as hell knows it, but thanks to his triple legacy, the admissions committee up at 116th will go through the motions of reshuffling his application and sending him another letter in a month or so. Of all the kids in the group, James was the one with the closest to a decent social life outside of hanging out with these other four misfits (read: losers), and he of course was filled with the most grandiose visions of college parties, women, and supposedly, much easier course work. Discounting the Columbia string-along, James was probably going to stay in-state for college, either at one of the more respectable New York state schools or some small liberal arts school his parents would shell out for to paper over the vague embarrassment of their well-tutored child not getting into a “prestigious” university.

James’ best friend in this group, and the only one of them he would trust with information of even mild confidentiality, was a kid named Steve Ronson. The two had gone to middle school on the Upper West Side together. He too was an academic underachiever, at least relative to his parents’ expectations, but he also worked much harder than he generally let on, and is headed to Chicago for school in the fall. He could probably use the distance from New York. Steve was once a fairly respected kid in middle school, but a dreadful faux-pas in freshman year–the specifics of which are not relevant to where he and his friends stand in early April, 2011–consigned him to his now mediocre social life. People far removed from his social circle still occasionally reference his name. Negatively. Still, he’s a good, kind kid, and most importantly for the afternoon’s purposes, has a fake. It was Steve’s cards and bookkeeping that kept that game back at the pizzeria going.

Alex Williams rounded out the three closer-knit kids in the group. He also went to the same Upper West Side middle school as James and Steve, and his continued association with the two was basically the residue of those initial three years together (Alex, unlike the other two, had went to parochial school before 6th grade). The three got along well enough, but over the past year Steve and James had started behaving more as a pair, with Alex stuck as sort of a third wheel. Alex probably cemented this frost by subtly trying to cock-block James at a somewhat grimy party a few months ago. Subtle enough for plausible deniability, but James can truly hold a grudge at times.

The other two kids on the train that day, the two not as “in the loop” (presuming one even wants in on this ‘loop’), were Lewis Hernandez and Richard Yee. They were the only non-white kids of that five. Those two facts aren’t related, unless you want them to be. Richard was the one who didn’t have money, or the inclination, to join the poker game earlier. Their slight isolation from the other three was mostly a function of not having gone to the same middle school as the other three. Anyway, Lewis and Richard were both on the school newspaper, which was a truly depressing experience, least of all because no one else gave a shit about them being on the newspaper. The two often played ball with James, Steve and Alex on Friday afternoons. Both lived in Queens–Richard in Flushing and Lewis in Astoria–but probably were going to crash in “the city” if the evening got too interesting.

4:50

The five kids stand outside of the newer head-house at the 72nd street station, having just got off the train. James asks Alex, who got the original text about the parent-free house,

“Is this going to be just a free or an actual party?”

Before the answer, a note about terminology here. A “free” simply means that the parents are away. Typically this lends itself to a small, usually exclusively male night where the guys sit around and have Meaningful Conversations, play video games, and compare notes on attractive women in their classes they couldn’t get with. Beers are typically invovled. A “party” typically features the parent free house, but more people, more interesting diversions, and more importantly, a decent number of girls (or should we say women?).

“Not sure. Keep in mind this thing wasn’t even supposed to happen just a half hour ago,” Alex responded. “At any rate, there is drink to be acquired.”

But first, they were going to go to the house in question, just as soon as the kid’s parents left for their upstate country house. That supposedly was going to happen soon, as signaled by a text he would send 10 minutes after they drove away. They sat on the benches in the not-quite-a-park next to the station and waited.

The story continues: Part 3

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131st st (1) to the north

The following is a work of fiction, mostly in the sense that it isn’t a work of fact, journalistic or otherwise. It unfolds in multiple parts (Part 2)

3:30

The pizzeria isn’t much. Actually, it’s just a storefront with a few tables and not-too-comfortable seats inside. Every few minutes, there is the faint rumble of a nearby elevated subway line. The pizza itself isn’t great, but good enough for a midafternoon snack. This could be anywhere in New York’s outer boroughs, but in this case it’s the Bronx, close to the northern stub of the 1 train.

All the nearby schools have let out, and the owner steels himself for the onslaught. He appreciates the brisk business the afterschool hours bring, especially on the Fridays, but hates the highschoolers themselves. To him, they’re a hormonal horde of loud, boisterous, and occasionally aggressive nuisance. The telltale voices of a group of students approaches, and the kids walk in. The owner relaxes a bit. These kids don’t look like troublemakers, he thinks to himself. If asked to actually defend such a sentiment, the owner would probably back away from the statement, but anyone whose lived long enough in a major American city would probably “get” what he meant.

The kids approach the counter and order. Most ask for slices, two deicide on the spot to split a calzone. After ordering, they pull two of the small tables together and array the chairs. While waiting for the food, one pulls out a deck of cards, while another pulls out and opens a folder, grabbing a well-worn sheet with a bunch of names and numbers. Poker has been the rage for the past few months among the school’s upperclassmen, and this group of seniors is no exception.
One of the kids, too cheap (and too poor in pocket money anyway) to gamble, instead takes out his iPod and starts playing one of the game apps. Conversation swirls around him.

“You guys doing anything this weekend?”

“meh, not really”

“I hear someone has a free house, definitely tomorrow, and maybe tonight”

“where are the parents going?”

“country house upstate, I hear.”

A few minutes pass, and the owner shouts over the counter. The food’s ready. The kids get up to pay and get it; some drop a few extra coins and reach into the cooler for a soda. They sit down again.
The mid-spring air is warm, and pregnant with the usual anticipation of the approaching end of school. For these kids, who can finally envision the next stage of life with slightly less guessing, the approaching end has slightly more meaning. To them, it’s the end of all This Bullshit, a catch-all phrase for the onslaught of tests, college applications, and essay-writing they endured in the first half of the year. The arbitrary and punitive management from their school’s administration didn’t help their view towards the past few years.

After a half hour or so, the pizza long eaten, the kids finally call an end to the poker game and head towards Broadway, and the 1 train. They start up the staircase when a familiar rumble is heard.

“Train!”

The kids hurry up the stairs, making it to the turnstiles as the train pulls into the station. One springs ahead, making it inside first and putting his hands on the side of the door. The conductor, rolling his eyes, closes the doors on the back half of the train, but the rest of the kids make it to the platform and on to the front half of the train before the conductor can close those doors. The train leaves the station

4:10

It’s just before rush hour, but on this Manhattan-bound train, the kids find a nearly empty car after walking forward a bit. They, again, sit. Under normal circumstances this would mark a restart to the poker game, but the owner of the deck of cards got his pocket picked back at the pizzeria, so he conveniently forgets this routine. Instead, he brings up what qualifies as important conversation to a group of boys in late adolescence.

“yo, you never actually told us if you got with that girl last weekend. Did it or did it not happen?”

What else did you expect? Especially among this group of relatively undersexed adolescents, there is one sure-fire way to liven up an otherwise listless conversation, and that is talk of, well, you know.

“Two-thirty-first!”

The others never get to hear the answer to this pressing question, as the doors open at the next stop. In sweeps a panhandler, one of the many minor annoyances of the subway.

The story continues: Part 2

American coverage of the Lebanese Civil War was muted for much of its duration, owing to the low US military involvement. (lifted from the “collectivehistory” tumblr page)

War, Death, and indifference.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Who cares? That tree fell in an African forest, not an American one.

This past Wednesday, I covered for the Columbia Journalism Review a talk about war photojournalism at the Brooklyn Brewery. If you haven’t already, read the piece I wrote up on the event (don’t worry, I’ll wait).

One of the most interesting tidbits from the conversation between Steve Hindy and photojournalist Michael Kamber that I ended up leaving out of the piece–because it was a bit tangential to the main idea–came close to the end of the event. The answer was in response to a slightly lighthearted question asked of Steve–himself a former war correspondent–about whether reporters once had a bar to go at the end of the day and discuss the day’s events. (the question was asked by a reporter who had covered Iraq for the Times) Steve responded that the real difference between Iraq and the conflicts he had covered was the presence of Americans on the ground. The conflicts he had covered in the Middle East during the 70s and 80s ranked comparatively low on the American news agenda. As he put it, “who cares if the PLO and the Phalange get into a horrible battle in Beirut and 40 people die? There was no American there except us…in a way I was envious of the wars you guys covered because at least for a time, Americans were watching.”

This idea, that people only really care about wars when their own countrymen [and women] are fighting in them itself isn’t too surprising, and I’m not going to act like one of those slightly annoying types (see twitter) who feign outrage whenever this type of thing happens. If we take a more recent example, some pointed out after the Boston bombings that while only 3 people died in the attack that day, far more people died that day in Syria and other conflict zones around the world. As these critics pointed out, those other people died on the wrong day in terms of getting the world, and certainly the American media, to care about their deaths–the “hierarchy of death,” as a columnist for the Guardian put it.

If we look at the coverage of the recent Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, we’re seeing the same thing. Despite knowing the identities of two of the three deaths (a third death was announced earlier Friday evening, as of this writing), the media generally limited their coverage of the two who died, simply saying that they were both Chinese students who were coming to the US on vacation. Humanizing enough, but nothing like some of the heartfelt, textured portraits of the victims from the Boston bombings.

I mentioned earlier that I’m not necessarily outraged by this cold reality. Why? Simple. The media, with some exceptions, is a reasonably clear reflection of the audience they serve. People, for better or for worse, cope with the sheer amount of “bad things” in the world by limiting their reaction to those events to those they feel some sort of connection with, be it being from similar circumstances, places, or, in this case, nationality. It’s why, when a ship somewhere crashes, NPR talks about the Americans on the ship, and CBC talks about the Canadians on the ship. These outlets are reflecting the fact that their audience cares about those they feel the closest connection to.

Accidents like the Costa Concordia are excellent demonstrations of how international media first look to cover the fates of occupants from the outlet’s nation.

Now what can be said for this? In the abstract, it’s certainly fair to talk about the arbitrariness of national borders, the accident of birth, all that stuff. In an ideal world, people would care about the deaths (and lives) of people equally, regardless of nationality, socioeconomic status, or profession. But they don’t, and probably never will. (David Wong over at Cracked gives even more analysis on this idea of rationed empathy in his “Monkeysphere” piece) To the extent that people are hard-wired to think this way, and also to the extent that it is physically impossible to give the same prominence to every news story, it’s logical that the news media–even public, not-for-profit outlets–would reflect their audience’s interests. The unavoidable problem, in the end, is that worthy stories–like that battle in Beriut some thirty years ago–often get shunted to the inside pages because of this instinct.

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