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A Spy In Enemy Territory

One summer day when I was nine or ten a van came from the appliance store and stopped three houses down. Two workers unloaded a big cardboard box that had FRIGIDARE printed on its side, and they used a wheeled cart to muscle it up the porch steps and into the front door. They came out fifteen minutes later, and put the empty box on the curb. Naturally, I saw the possibilities and dragged it to my back yard.

It was my private clubhouse, with a membership of one. Me! Inside the box I punched out a 1/4th inch hole with a pencil, near the top. A hardly noticeable spy hole through which I could see without being seen.

Soon Caroline, my next-door-neighbor, came out of her back door and walked to her garden. She knelt and stabbed the dirt with a little spade. Then, after gathering up a basket full of tomatoes, basil, strawberries and rhubarb, she went back inside.

I don't know why, but it felt so good, so exciting, being hidden from her view and watching without her knowing I was there.

I got tired of standing and sat down, my arms resting on my drawn-up knees. As my eyes became more adjusted to the darkness I saw something that puzzled then elated me. It was a dreamlike, full-color upside-down image on the cardboard wall directly opposite my spyhole. I squinted. There was the big oak tree near the garage, its dark leafy branches moving slightly in the breeze, and there was the blue sky, and slowly moving white cumulus clouds, just like in those marvelous W. C. Wyeth illustrations in Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island.

The Italian painters of the Renaissance called it a “camera obscura,” and there I was, inside my very own. To improve the image I darkened the interior of the box by covering up light-leaking cracks with duct tape, and experimented with the size of the hole. A tiny one produced a sharper picture, but much dimmer. Then I thumbtacked up a sheet of white paper, and drew the details of the scene with a pencil, which I proudly presented to my father. He couldn’t believe I had done it because I was just a little boy. The drawing was too much like the real thing, you know?

A few years earlier, when I was living at Aunt Jane’s house on Bellmont Avenue, I made a super-secret hiding place in the closet opposite the door that opened to the back porch. They had stacked red cushions from the front porch glider in there, on the floor under a low, wide shelf. I could squeeze in, and arrange the cushions to shut out all sound and light. No one could hear or see me. I curled up, totally safe in the darkness. I listened to my heartbeat, and felt the warmth slowly increasing, and then I’d gradually drift off into a pleasant dreamy doze.

One afternoon hiding out in there I heard the sounds of Jane ironing on her machine in the cellar. She was almost directly below me. I wondered: Wouldn’t it be neat to be able to spy on her? Yes, of course it would. So later I crept down to Uncle Howard’s workshop and got his brace and bit. I clumsily cranked that heavy steel tool and watched the shiny spiral bit eat its way quickly through the soft wood. A neat hole, about an inch in diameter. A spy hole.

I failed to account for the sawdust that fell downward and made a pale blonde scattering on the basement floor. When Jane returned to her ironing, she stopped, leaned over. Then looked up. Didn’t take long for her to figure it out.

“What’s wrong with you?” she shouted. “For God’s sake WHY DID YOU DO THAT?”

From my point of view, nothing was wrong with me. It should have been obvious to her. A spy hole made perfect sense. A good way to see but not be seen. But from her point of view, I was destroying her property. Only crazy people destroy property, right? So no question. Johnny’s crazy. A real pain in the ass, you know?

Thoughts of my boyhood camera obscura, and then my spy hole in the floor in my secret bunker, came to me Thanksgiving as I walked the streets of Manhattan with my Nikon, secretly capturing images of passersby.

I rarely get caught because I’ve had decades of experience spying on people.

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This is wonderful, yet another example of your gift for words and photos. There's a certain beauty in your last sentence -- "I rarely get caught because I’ve had decades of experience spying on people" -- that's difficult to articulate. Perhaps it's that it's written without shame, exactly as it should be.

And "a spy hole made perfect sense" -- this line might just stick with me forever. How utterly true, among all of life's absurd cruelties. It absolutely makes perfect sense, and yet this perfect sense is so quickly stomped out of most of us.

Most, but not all.

Well, Aaron, thanks. You’ve bored right down to the heart of my autobiographical musings. Over the decades “they” tried so hard to stomp out my personality, but they never succeeded. You’re absolutely right. One ought not feel shame or a need to make apologies.

When we fail to be what we are, we will have ceased to evolve. Evolution has to be lived forward. I say this as one who has stood above the bones of much that has vanished, and at midnight has examined his own face. --Loren Eiseley

On a somewhat related note, I learned this morning that Frau Blücher is a character played by Cloris Leachman in the 1974 movie “Young Frankenstein.” In the darkness, as the Frau carries a trio of unlit candles, she tells her companion:

“Stay close to the candles. The stairway can be... treacherous.”

Priceless irony.

As you know, I've followed you here on LJ for quite some time, and while I don't often contribute comments, I read all of your posts. I enjoy the images a great deal, but I think I like your writing even more.

I consider myself to be a very good writer (and I say 'writer' instead of 'author' deliberately), but I've come to recognize that my abilities with words are really just an extension of my thought processes, and in some cases an extension of the way I speak. The only writing I really enjoy is technical writing -- manuals and specifications and the like, with a strong dose of opinion.

As opposed to the work of someone like yourself, whom I would consider an author. An author, I feel, has an inherent, intangible gift. An unlearned, unlearnable artistic quality that gives him a unique voice and breathes life into his work. Another line from your post illustrated this jarringly to me:

"She knelt and stabbed the dirt with a little spade."

If I were recalling this event, it would not occur to me to use the verb "stab." And yet it's so perfect. I'm all about the most functional word -- "she used a spade," "she dug with a spade," etc. -- versus a more evocative or emotional word. Of course "stab" is perfect here. That tiny sentence paints a whole picture. It amazes me.

And Frau Blücher! You say you just learned about her role in "Young Frankenstein?" Have you seen the movie? It's a true classic, one of Mel Brooks' best films, if not the best.

Funny thing, my using "Frau Blücher" here on LJ -- it was a completely off-the-cuff, casual decision. I do like the movie a lot, but Leachman's character is, to me, irrelevant among all the other more enjoyable roles in the movie. I think her goofy "Frau Blücher" name was her best contribution to the film.

Speaking of which, I am long overdue to change my LJ moniker. I created this account eight years ago, and while "whatupbitch" was edgy and silly at the time, I've so long since outgrown it that it's a bit of an embarrassment now. One day soon I must change it.

Once again thanks for your kind and generous comments, and your interest in my work. It’s always good to start a day with an affirmation of this sort.

As for Young Frankenstein, yes, I’ve seen it several times and what sticks out for me is how HOT Inga—Terri Garr—was.

I agree it’s a hilarious movie, but I think The Producers is just a bit better.

Now on the topic of usernames, icons, avatars, etc., I’ve seen your lobster in the urinal for a long time, as well as “whatupbitch,” and always wondered in passing what significance they had to you as a person, and the Frau reference only muddied the waters.

I’ve always believed that such choices are rarely casual, and, like dreams, carry great personal significance, but then that probably springs from my sometimes overactive imagination. My mother once told me, “Johnny, you dramatize things too much.” (I regret I never had the presence of mind to tell her, “Yeah, mom, and that’s precisely what any decent writer DOES!”)

Anyway, I went back and read more carefully through your journal I learned your background as a programmer, website developer, and graphic designer. Far from what I expected. Which reinforces the notion that things are hardly ever what they seem to be.

As for author vs. writer, I’m reminded of a photo shoot and interview of Joyce Carol Oates I did about 13 years ago.

In a fairly long discussion about writing she said if you compose a letter, “you can also write fiction that will be interesting and publishable, because it is in a way very much like fiction. You are recreating your experience in a particular way, and to each person you speak in a different voice, and that's what you do when you write a story.”

There are many instances in your journal posts where you depart from what you call purely functional writing to something more emotionally charged and personally significant, and that’s when your real “voice” emerges. Another way of saying that if you really wanted to be an author, very little stands in your way!

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