Remembering is more than nostalgia

His long time friend Pete Seeger said a few words in a raspy voice and we all touched Joe for the last time.

His long time friend Pete Seeger said a few words in a raspy voice and we all touched Joe for the last time.

Joe Cahill, a photographer’s agent in Manhattan for 40 some years, was a good friend of mine.

I am not quite sure how to portray Joe other than to say he was my quasi father-in-law. He was having an affair with Grace, my former wife’s mother.

Convoluted, but so be it.

At 1:40 this morning all this comes back to me.

Unable to sleep, I have dragged myself upstairs for water. Above the kitchen sink hangs a framed promotional by Shig Ikeda — one of Joe’s most successful photographers.

The Inner Mind by Shig Ikeda, Soho Photo Gallery, 15 White Street, New York City. An exhibit: February 7 – March 4, 1995.

The silver gelatin print is a close-up of a fried egg fixed with four square nails to a piece of grainy wood set against an ominous heavy metal-grey sky.

The photograph was shot with a Deardorff 8X10 on rails with intermediate bellows in a dark studio in the wee hours of the morning.

If not for the nightlights coming in off Third Avenue there would have been no light at all.

Emotive photography was Shig’s passion, commercial work his bread and butter.

When Joe first introduced me to Shig, he was working a commercial shoot for Canon Corporation. They had just manufactured the world’s smallest printer and wanted to give it wings.

In the studio, the gadget, no larger than the palm of your hand, was dangling on a monofilament line tied to water pipes overhead. This gave it the appearance of floating in mid-air.

A frail and rather hunched young man with perfect hands placed one of those hands just under the printer, being careful not to touch it.

Shig clicked the shutter.

The hand model wandered off toward the back of the room and curved a small file over each fingernail. He cared for his hands like they were all he had. Perhaps they were.

After a half-dozen takes, we were done.

The model got his union wage of two grand; the marketing representative for Canon rode the elevator down to his Lincoln Towncar and Joe and I caught the 5 a.m. train to Tarrytown.

I remember a light rain falling on the deck of the train station when we got off at Hastings-on-Hudson.

This all comes back to me now.

Joe was my introduction to the art world.

Raised in a 10-storey Brownstone in the heart of upper Manhattan, he lived for the city.

He knew fashion, colour, light and sound. He understood New York’s social scene, and he could name names. Gallery owners were friends; restaurant owners grabbed his arm, patted his shoulders.

I always thought he wore that city like it should be: relaxed, polished, forthcoming.

One day he and I hailed a cab on Fifth Avenue.

I remember Joe giving the driver specific instructions on how to beat the traffic to the Southside seaport.

We ate lobster and a basket of hard bread in a place where we could smell saltwater.

Joe ran his eyes over the regulars searching for a face he could use in a frothy beer commercial.

When he died of heart failure, I returned to New York City for the last time.

The family carried his ashes out to sea on his sailboat, the Amazing Grace. His long time friend Pete Seeger said a few words in a raspy voice and we all touched Joe for the last time.

He melded away into a grey sea.

I stare at the fried egg nailed to the board.

I see my reflection in the light and watch myself down a glass of water.

I fill my glass again and ask myself what this all means.

My mother-in-law died in always-sunny Florida alone, shuttered in with Alzheimer’s.

My former wife never remarried.

With a sizable inheritance she flew to Guiyang, China, and rescued a six-month-old girl with laughter for eyes. They are picture perfect mother and daughter.

Here I am in the Yukon, swallowing wilderness like frothy beer.

I sometimes dream Shig is still around, clicking the shutter, capturing my life frame-by-frame, waiting for new scenes to come to light.

Through the act of remembering this morning I realize life accumulates moment-by-moment.

And the guilt that trips in on us now and then must be allowed to fall like rose petals, leaving us a future coloured only by what we do right now.

If we allow the past to sink us, our future is apt to look like a fried egg attached to deeply grained wood by rusty square nails.

To get us through all of this we only have so much energy. We can go light on ourselves or come down heavy. It takes the same amount of energy.

I suspect Joe would go light.

I take one more glance at the photo.

Down near the bottom, just above the piece of wood, the sky appears to lift and I notice a shine to the top of the egg.

For the life of me I don’t know how Shig could have done this in the studio.

Maybe he didn’t.

But I do know the heavy metal-grey that woke me this morning has moved on.

When I finally got back to bed, I could only think how fortunate I was to have hung the Inner Mind where I did.

As I drift off, I think about the fact that remembering is not just nostalgia. It is the mind’s way of keeping the past present in order to free a bit of space for the future.

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